Panorama’s exposure of greater collusion was a fine effort but it will make no difference

The BBC  are to be commended for visiting “ boring old Northern Ireland “ in a Panorama  special on the legacy issues of collusion, Britain’s Secret Deals, reported by Darragh McIntyre. To those who follow the detail there was little that was entirely new, although there was graphic fresh evidence and it was high time it was presented to the wider audience.  The bizarre detail that the rifle used in the murderous attack on Sean Graham’s bookies ended up in the Imperial war Museum was, literally, an exhibition of collusion in itself.

McIntyre undermined but not did manage to overturn the verdict of de Silva, that although there were “shocking levels of  collusion, there was no “ overarching state conspiracy.”  But “the more murders are investigated the more collusion comes to light.” His conclusion that collusion was at work in “perhaps thousands of murders” seems to have confirmed by Lord Stevens in a conversation  which wasn’t  filmed but  which is covered in his still unpublished reports . These reports can at least now be used in evidence.

As he  bolted from McIntrye in the street, it was  notable that  the army commander at the time of the Finucane murder in 1989 General  Sir John Waters, was the first to break the wall of silence over de Silva by calling his conclusions  “deeply unfair”   over  managing agents  and  facilitating the deniability  of  ministers. And that a former Assistant Chief Constable Raymond  White  defended  the security  forces’ “ robust response” to the IRA campaign while disavowing  overarching state conspiracy.  These snatches whetted the appetite for much more. But who can compel further disclosure?

Despite a wealth of evidence that IRA agents were also  protected, Panorama’s report will inevitably strengthen the republican case that the Troubles were a war between the IRA  and a state that supported the loyalists. It can  be answered  in part by  open discussion supported by evidence of the state’s record against loyalists but  more candidly, in answering the question: if  the use of informers  and agents was so prevalent – or as I’ve added later, thought to be  such a great idea almost from the start, why did it take so long to bring the major paramilitaries to the points of ceasefire and final cessation?  Unfortunately there is a total unwillingness within the British establishment to answer these questions  or allow  researchers access to the public record  to do so.  The Finucane  question of ” who pulled the strings not the triggers” remains shamefully open. Frank discussion  of the counter insurgency strategy would be legally compromising and there is no serious pressure to find another way. One thing is clear: it will not emerge in a search for individual justice (added later).

As we’ve been told ad nauseam, future  major public enquiries are out and the whole issue of the Troubles legacy is being sloughed off to the hapless Assembly as if  it were purely a local matter. Be sure, the authorities as much as unconvicted terrorists will continue to  get away with it.  Any idea that the paramilitaries would corroborate the facts of collusion by breaking omerta is wholly fanciful. The  conspiracy of silence is mutual and politicians in all parties are accessories.

The new efforts to deal with the past are inadequate before they start. Indeed the smack of  tokenism. The chief constable George Hamilton will give a new Historic  Investigations Unit his support, but the present is his priority not the past.  Challenged in court  he has been forced  to release case documents on Loughinisland to the redoubtable  police ombudsman  Michael Maguire  who has launched a fresh investigation.  But the gaff was   blown with the Justice minister David Ford admitting the resources for  tackling the Troubles legacy were “ totally inadequate.”  In fact the £150 million has already been described by Nuala O’Loan as “contemptible. The funding is in any case  subject to the ratification of the Stormont House Agreement.

In the film, the evidence of victims and survivors was heart rending.  Informers were protected regardless of the  identity of victims. Alan Black still feels guilt after  37 years,  as the sole survivor of the Kingsmill massacre of 10 Protestants in  the climax to a hideous  spate of sectarian murders  in south Armagh  in 1976, at a time when the paramilitaries were on token ceasefire .

In the dreadful cases of WPC Coleen McMurray and the journalist Martin O’Hagan, the evidence was strong enough for McIntryre to present suspects on camera. One told how he designed the mechanism of the bomb that killed McMurray , the other drove off when challenged over the murder of O’Hagan . Why has no fresh action yet been taken against Colm Murphy, already found to have civil liability over the Omagh bomb and now a suspect in the Kingsmill massacre?  And so many others ?

The authorities have given various answers, none of them entirely satisfactory.

Much evidence has been lost  or never gathered under pressure of events. Panorama exposed lies about some cases.

A new Historic Investigations Unit is to be set up, allegedly more rigorous than its predecessor,  but underfunded and not in any case fully in operation for two years.

Also a  more searching and faster inquest system presided over by a judge  who presumably  can put a rocket under the police ( who may still plead lack of resources).

But all of this at best will only scratch the surface. Lobbyists like Amnesty may make their ritual  cases but it will make no difference.

A calculation has  almost certainly  been made that the early release  scheme of the Good Friday Agreement amounts to a de facto amnesty in all but the grossest cases where the evidence  is  thrust down their throats and in spite of the disingenuous denials of here today gone tomorrow  ministers who trot out the line to take. Everybody knows, nobody cares enough  to demand honesty. Victims are victims twice  over.

Neither the state nor the surviving paramilitaries will give away any more than they absolutely  must. Lack of resources and the absence of official pressure  will guarantee that.  Galling it may be to admit it, the human rights lobbies in Britain have  higher  priorities. The BBC has done its investigative duty but  there will be significant follow up.

The reputation of the British state will rest on the peace process. Questions over how the war was waged that may properly be addressed to all involved will continue  to be avoided. The belief that a more fulfilled peace depends  on dealing with  the past should now come under question as realities begin to be faced. Perhaps a few will gain satisfaction but most will not.

The search for individual justice risks becoming the obstacle to discovering  limited truth.  Only  united public pressure following  immunity from prosecution  might deliver anything more.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London