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.

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  • mickfealty

    Not sure I buy Eamonn’s line though. It was more likely about penetrating the decision making cycle as the US military text books put it. That’s not quite the same as the sort of masterful control Eamonn’s hinting at.

    I’d put a couple of caveats around what you suggest re reputation and authority of the state. The former paramilitaries are now part of the state, so if the state is in the dock so will they be (to one extent or another).

    The recent ruling on Loughgall edges around material that remains controversial inside the former Provisional movement in point of view of that whole ‘internal housekeeping’ period just before and for some time after the ceasefires.

    It’s a sort of Ouroboros, or self consuming dragon of the Peace Process™ which traditionally signifies something constantly re-creating itself, each time signifying something slightly different.

    In conjunction with the broadening definitions of collusion (‘the state was good, and never did anything wrong”:

    we’re also see a hollowing out of revolutionaries adopting a worn path towards reformism.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick quite right,there’s a major onus on the Provisionals and other paramiltiaries to fess up, and little likelihood that they will. That suggests there are no outright winners in a propaganda battle which is why Sinn Fein have been cautious about waging it too hard.

    There wasn’t and in view shouldn’t be a completely level playing field as between rival combatants. Much is known about from trials of paramilitaries in which thousands received prison sentences. State servants benefited from the presumption – not always justified – that state servants were upholding the law and if you like, defending the state from armed rebellion.

    But this obligation cuts both ways.

    All citizens have an equal obligation to obey the law but the state with its particular obligations and power under it, have responsibility for the rule of law regardless of what others did or did not do. The state’s obligations are not up for bargaining. i make it that the lead responsibility for disclosure therefore still lies with them

    Eamonn’s point is a quote ( I left out the attribution) and it’s certainly a rhetorical exaggeration. But as he also points out most aspects of security remain firmly in the hands of Her Majesty’s Government. For the entire period Westminster had sole responsibility.

    Any legal reforms contemplated by the Assembly would have to agreed by Westminster and perhaps might require some Westminster legislation for example an eventual statute of limitations after five years. So Westminster is as responsible today in this area as it was during direct rule and the Troubles.

  • Neil

    The ex-IRA man reported to have been a security force double-agent who tipped off his handlers about the October 1993 Shankill Road bombing is suspected by a number of former Belfast IRA comrades of having deliberately “jarked” the device so it exploded prematurely, to cause maximum civilian casualties and so weaken the “hawk” wing within the Provos opposed to an IRA ceasefire

    Also worth a look to anyone seeking to discuss the “reputation” of the British state there’s a wiki page here which may prove an instructive starting point:

  • Neil

    No nor in the south either which seems to be the real prize for SF these days. Makes you wonder who leaked the info in the first place.

  • Kev Hughes

    Gendjinn, that’s Mick’s running theme on practically everything at the moment.

    It reminds of my stubborn Brazilian friend who really dislikes losing any form of argument; he usually responds to any area of argument with the words ‘ah, but who won 5 world cups?!’

  • MainlandUlsterman

    What if the state jumps first on full disclosure and the paramilitaries don’t follow suit? It would be very noble of the state to go unilateral on this, but given the massive preponderance of Troubles crimes that were by Republicans and Republicans’ continuing refusal to provide any disclose for their part, would it not create a new injustice? That of unfair treatment of the victims of terrorists vis-a-vis the victims of wrongs by state actors. There are way more terrorist victims than state victims, way, way more, so it would be quite a significant imbalance to introduce.

    We all know the real game here is the Republican desire to refashion how their “armed struggle” is perceived, so that it ceases to be quite such a chain around their post-peace ankles. The main plank in that strategy is to focus media attention on crimes by state servants in such a way that crimes by Republicans (and even Loyalists) receive a diminishing share of comment and attention and so appear as if they were on a smaller scale. So I hear what you’re saying about the state duty to disclose – but let’s not be naive. State disclosure in isolation would create an even more skewed balance of documentary records of the Troubles than is already the case. Some of us wanting to see a fair truth recovery process across the board, to redress the already imbalanced status quo (in which as you say all the pressure is on the state and very little on the paramilitaries), are aghast at the prospect of the imbalance being further deepened by unreciprocated acts of disclosure by the state. I want the full truth about the Troubles, not just what the state did in the Troubles. *All* of it. Partisan justice is not justice at all.

    The Eamonn McCann quote is one of his more ditsy ones. The security services infiltrated and ran agents extensively among both colours of paramilitaries, so what? It would be more controversial if the state hadn’t bothered, or had only infiltrated one side.
    McCann then, like a contestant trying to cross the bouncy globes on Total Wipeout, attempts two daring logical leaps before falling flat on his face:
    (1) leap 1 – to claim that because the state had informers, that it was therefore “running” both sides – how does that follow? What makes him think the state had overall control over the IRA campaign? Or the loyalist campaigns? I’d be very interested to see if he can substantiate that – it does push credulity beyond breaking point.
    (2) leap 2 – he then asks, what justification can be given for the Troubles if this is the case? As if there was no real antagonism between unionist and nationalist in NI and it was all contrived by state in order to, I don’t know, make the place a financial black hole for the Exchequer. He really seems to think the state, to put it baldly, carried out the Troubles and could have just switched it off. Yet in reality, the only side that could switch it off was the IRA. The Troubles were primarily driven by Republican ideology, but McCann seems to be suggesting the paramilitaries were all just puppets on strings, being made to fight each other for the entertainment of MI5 and with no free will of their own. Reminds me of that silly Tony Benn strain of conspiracy theory, where the puppet-masters in London and Washington control everything and all the little people doing the killing aren’t nasty sectarian pieces of work driven by the desire to settle sectarian scores, but automatons being manipulated remotely. Not I think Eamonn’s finest hour as a thinker or analyst there.

  • “What if the state jumps first on full disclosure and the paramilitaries don’t follow suit?”

    Given what we already know about informers within the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups the state can’t jump first without the agreement of others.

    No wonder the negotiations on that with Sinn Féin are taking so long…

    But, no. It’s not Eamonn’s finest hour.

  • Brian

    As things stand, the biggest losers are not the residual paramilitaries and their supporters, but the reputation of the state and it servants.

    Well, perhaps… Although, as the Smithwick Tribunal found

    The preponderance of evidence before me points to Chief Superintendent Harry Breen having been the specific target of this operation. In this regard, I rely on the intelligence received in the immediate wake of the murders, the evidence given by retired Detective Sergeant Seán Gethins and on the fact that the vast majority of the evidence suggests that the intention was to abduct and interrogate these officers. In the latter respect, the evidence keeps pointing back to the desire of the IRA to acquire information as to how the British Security Services had gotten advance warning of the IRA ambush on Loughgall Police Station in May 1987. [added emphasis]

    One point Eamonn McCann makes is worth repeating

    Far from being brought to heel, MI5 now occupies a more central role in the North than ever. In 2007, MI5 was given “primacy” over all matters touching on “national security.” Documents obtained in 2012 under freedom of Information by the Committee on the Administration of Justice give an insight into the implication.

    Despite the devolution of policing and justice, and pledges of “transparency” hailed as hugely significant at the time of the handover in 2006, neither the Policing Board nor the department of justice has any function in relation to police matters with a “security dimension”. The documents stipulate that any doubt about the applicability of this provision to a particular matter is to be referred to MI5 or the British government for determination.

    So the very issue at the heart of Sinn Féin’s objections to the government’s approach to the past remains in place in the present – a present that they endorse. Doubly so.