The reception for the Loughinisland documentary No Stone Unturned shows that legacy issues will stay marginalised

The low key reception given to the documentary No Stone Unturned, the film documentary on the UVF  murders  of six  randomly selected Catholics in their local Loughinisland  pub in 1994 which is currently being  given a brief screening at the Queen’s Film Theatre, is the latest example of how presumed familiarity with the underlying problems of  Northern Ireland has produced if not quite contempt, at least widespread deadening  indifference.

Warm congratulations nevertheless go to The Detail team especially their reporter Barry McCaffrey who cooperated closely with the filmmaker Alex Gibney to produce a convincing piece which is low on rhetoric and trails no political coat.  But the essential collaborators were the Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire and his team who  in a powerful report last year exposed the extent of collusion,  and an RUC detective who described  vividly how he was  thwarted by the Special Branch from pursuing  inquiries with those who always were and remain the “suspects.”  When the identity of an anonymous written confession obtained by McCaffrey was revealed, it allowed the film’s producers to begin to match names to the anonymised identities of Maguire’s 2016 report which quashed the whitewash that was his predecessor’s account.

The focus of the documentary expands from the Loughinisland findings of protecting one of the killers who was a police informer to the  notorious Glenanne Gang and thence to the widest claims of collusion between the authorities and loyalist paramilitaries.

The linkage to “the top” is plausible but so far unproven. What is discredited is the  “bad apple” theory which blames only  errant police officers for the murder of innocent Catholics – up to 70 the film said, taking place after the Loughinisland killings of 1994.

And there the matter rests, with whatever effect on the peace process. As the BBC’s great investigator John Ware asked in the film: what did the tangled web that was collusion actually gain?  Did it become simply a deadly habit?

No Stone Unturned was described in Slugger here. Today The Detail sets it in its version of the political context.          

Following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, police reform was one of the pillars of the new era.

The PSNI was created as a result of a major overhaul of the former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Today the police continue to face the deadly threat of violence from dissident republicans opposed to the peace process, but the recent controversies highlight the degree to which the new era in policing has been held back by the past.

A turning point was the British government’s decision to scrap the 50/50 recruitment of Protestants and Catholics, which was aimed to balance a police service that was more than 90% Protestant.

From 2001 to 2011 the policy saw Catholic numbers jump from 8% to 31%. Now the trend is downwards, with a recent pool of recruits including only 19% from the Catholic community.

Another pillar of the peace process could, in theory, have remedied the issues hampering policing.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was created as a platform for the Protestant/unionist community and the Catholic/Irish nationalist community to build a shared future.

But that didn’t happen.

Nationalists in particular came to see the assembly as a bulwark against their rights.

It is clear that the DUP overplayed its hand during the last decade in government at Stormont, culminating in the decision of Sinn Féin to collapse the institutions.

There were many factors at play, but a key element was that the DUP was courted by successive governments at Westminster, making it easier for the unionist party to resist uncomfortable compromises at home in Belfast.

Those pillars of the Good Friday agreement have now been further undermined by Brexit and the prospect of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

How do we reset these big issues?

If we look to government for help, we find the same Conservative Party which scrapped 50/50 police recruitment, which is accused of blocking a deal on the legacy of the Troubles, which relies on the DUP for power, and which is pursuing hard-border policies on Brexit.

When a government watchdog such as Michael Maguire speaks out, who do we expect to respond?

The linkages made in this argument  are too direct.

The “rights” being “blocked” are mainly symbolic identity matters championed aggressively by Sinn Fein as part of a political strategy. While in itself this does not invalidate them, it chooses to ignore the massive fact that institutional discrimination has been outlawed. A justice system  remains largely intact that defends the state, albeit one that has been recast by making concessions to paramilitaries and made locally accountable.

But Sinn Fein’s pressure to go further will be denied. Their apparent aim of achieving overall equivalence between the security forces and the IRA would not be conceded by any state.  The aspirations for “ transitional justice” are being eclipsed  by the political struggle  –  something which its expert advocates would do well to acknowledge.

The obstacles to dealing with the legacy would exist without any deal between the DUP and the Conservatives. With Justice devolved, the local parties cannot bear the weight of the issues. As long as prosecution remains the desired outcome of inquiry,  it is in no one’s interest to confess, from paramilitaries to army and police commanders and politicians.

To cut the knot the British government should go over the heads of the local parties and implement the Haass framework  for conducting  new investigations and holding inquests. They have already set aside £150 million over five years for the purpose. But this will not happen for as long as they keep pretending that the local parties can eventually agree.  The only alternative is to keep pegging away in the courts, case by case,  until everybody concerned is dead.

In truth all sides – successive British governments quoting the alibi of national security, Sinn Fein defending the armed struggle  and the unionist champions of “law and order” and the connivers with loyalist paramilitaries – all of them have too much to hide.

That is why dealing with the past has become a second order political issue.

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