The biggest losers in failing to come clean on the past is the reputation and authority of the state and its servants.

You don’t have to be a transitional justice zealot or a Provie fellow traveller to recognise that the heat is on the British government, the police and security authorities over dealing with the past. You can be a judge like Lord Justice Weir blasting the police and indirectly the government for  the inordinate delays in producing inquest evidence, now that high court judges have taken over the coroner’s service. You only need to be a supporter the DUP or TUV, after the latest claims that one of the Shankill fish shop bombers was an agent.  Difficult as it may be to prove a negative,  denials by the Chief Constable are not wholly convincing for as long as no attempt is made  to give  a fuller account of the role of informers  and to justify it.

There are scores of police officers and spooks, military  intelligence and officials who together know what happened and in many cases presumably would defend it, if they had legal immunity to do so. The whole story is broader than Stevens and Stalker-Sampson reports. In the vivid phrase of the Finucane family, “those who pulled the strings if not the trigger” should be  encouraged to talk. This is the most glaring omission in  the whole  controversy. As things stand, the biggest  losers are not the residual paramilitaries and their supporters, but the reputation of the state and it servants.

In the Irish Times Eamonn McCann makes the ultimate but not incredible point:

“Were the Brits running both sides?” And if they were to any significant degree, what justification can be offered now for the armed conflict which saw almost 4,000 killed, tens of thousands maimed in mind or body and bereaved families still distraught as their search for truth is thwarted at every turn?

Equally unfortunate is the clash of opinion over whether significant evidence remains on file to justify  the hopes  being placed  on  a new independent  historic investigations unit. The chief constable takes one view, the former police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan believes the opposite.

The very cold reality is that criminal proceedings are increasingly unlikely in the vast majority of legacy cases,” said Mr Hamilton

Former police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan ( has said) agencies had “operated outside the rules . . . Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people died because those people . . . were not stopped in their tracks. Many of them were killers and some of them were serial killers.”

The best hope for whatever truth can be discovered  lies in the hands of the senior judges now handling inquests and the reformed police ombudsman – until that is, the politicians agree on the package which includes  the  new investigations unit. That’s when £150 million will be released over five years to deal with the past. As more cases are brought forward, the real reason for continuing delay will be  exposed, whether lack of resources, the prevailing  excuse,  or official cover-up, the prevailing suspicion.

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