Consider the latest developments about two atrocities, the Dublin and Monaghan UVF bombs in May 1974 and the Birmingham IRA pub bombs of November the same year. What they have in common is knowledge of the identities of what we must call the alleged perpetrators. The deep frustration caused to individuals and states has not gone away. Kieran Conway now a Dublin solicitor, then the IRA’s “director of intelligence.” has again confirmed what is so well known, that the identities of the IRA killers of Birmingham are in the public domain.
In different interviews he seemed schizophrenic. On the Today programme, confronted with the outrage of a victim’s relative on the day a coroner decides whether to order new inquests, he said it was “an accident.. because the phones didn’t work.. .. horrible .. but part of a just war”. Yesterday he wrote off the IRA campaign as “completely futile…”
“A new trial is ruled out for lack of evidence unless the guilty men turned up at a UK police station and confessed but that isn’t going to happen..because the extradition rules ( of the 1970s) would apply today.”.
Indeed. One person’s legalistic evasion is another’s principle of justice. Inquests are a option which have been deferred for grotesquely long periods in so many cases because – or under the pretence – that they may be superseded by a trial, But would anything less than naming names satisfy victims and survivors? This is the question for any police reinvestigation of the Kingsmills massacre or any of the outstanding 50 or so major legacy inquests in NI itself. Expectations may be raised that can’t be satisfied. That perhaps is not enough reason for not trying.
But there are deep doubts that many inquests will yield major results. So has the time come to change course and require the security services on both sides of the border and the Irish sea to disclose what they know? Can this be done without identifying the killers, whose identities are protected by natural justice without a trial?
But the other issue is the obvious foot dragging by the two states. The Northern Ireland senior judiciary has assumed control over legacy inquests and does not hide its impatience with the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Executive.
It hardly helps if it isn’t clear which administration is responsible for funding. The whole legacy issue is a terrible muddle.
Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan is demanding that the British government open the files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombs for an international inquiry. But the south is still a bolthole for many killers. To what extent did the old extradition rules allow hundreds to get away with it? How for their part can the Republic make amends? Despite the good faith shown in inquiries like the Smithwick tribunal, resentment still prevails over the erratic security cooperation during the Troubles.
Justice may be unobtainable but greater disclosure all round is a good second best. To achieve it would require an end to legacy prosecutions and an honest debate about “national security”
Why go through years of rigmarole which is likely to end in worse frustration, when the Gordian knot of disclosure could be so much more easily cut ? How long do we have to pursue the search for justice before we admit it is unobtainable and opt for more disclosure? Until that happens the two governments will hide behind legal process in refusing release of security files.
Although the British and Irish governments seem joined at the hip in so many ways, they have not fully confronted their respective obligations on disclosure for dealing with the past. It’s disingenuous of them to claim that they are powerless to act until the local parties agree on the legacy agenda. Until they do so themselves, how can they expect the same from Stormont?
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