The prospect of prosecutions over the Stakeknife record underlines the need to enact a Legacy Bill

Wisely, the usual knee jerk reactions from politicians and commentators  committed to one side or another in historical cases have  been held back after the sudden announcement from Jon Boutcher the chief constable of Bedfordshire running Operation Kenova that he has gathered evidence  to prosecution standard. It remains  to be assessed by the Northern Ireland director of public prosecutions. The prospect of state servants being charged over the record of Stakeknife cuts through the deadlocked debate on dealing with the … Read more

The arrested Loughinisland massacre journalists are pawns in a legacy struggle

More details have been revealed by the journalist Susan McKay   about the circumstances of the arrest of the two journalists who researched Alex Gibney’s  exposé documentary No Stone Unturned.  The film gives a compelling account of alleged police negligence and collusion between some police officers and the murderers who committed the Loughinisland massacre in 1994, killing six people and wounding five when they burst into the Heights bar and sprayed it with bullets. The Ombudsman cleared one police commander.   Trevor … Read more

How historians can provide correctives to “memory wars” in dealing with the past


The Ulster-born, Oxford-based historian Ian McBride has published what I take to be the essence of his evidence to the government’s consultation on dealing with the past. He discusses the potential role for professional historians in the proposed institutions prescribed for dealing with oral history, information retrieval and identifying themes and patterns in events.  He takes for granted that Sinn Fein are winning the battle of the narratives. This is hardly surprising. In a new era where “equality” between peoples and traditions is a legal requirement, unionists persist in playing a zero sum game they’re bound to lose, in which every nationalist or republican gain is written down as a unionist loss. The answer is not merely to provide a contrived balance but to tell fuller stories with an open mind. Thus, the exposure of collusion is complemented by an account of success in infiltrating the IRA.

While the suggested list of themes is far from exhaustive, it goes straight  to the heart of many controversies and follows the line of the best investigative journalism. However while concentrating on the causes celebres on all sides of the conflict,  he fails to mention the essential political contexts behind them, without which many of them might seem “random” or “mindless”. The absence of other than self serving insider accounts of state strategy and tactics is also  a yawning gap waiting to be filled.

McBride argues for a bigger role for historians than the  government envisages.  They have prescribed fairly tight control by government or government appointees for all the usual reasons, plus the additional one of  trying to allay fears that the local parties would lose all control over the process.

While McBride incidentally challenges  these restrictions, he is  more concerned here to establish historians’ credentials than describing the essential requirements for exercising them. His appeal is professional and non-partisan, while insisting (over- apologetically perhaps, to head off partisan retorts), that everyone brings a background to their work, consciously or not. His case can credibly  be set alongside the high reputation of the writing of contemporary Irish history. His one anxiety is that a professional approach would be too dull (my word) for the general reader and register little impact on political debate. He would redress this in part by being unafraid to make moral judgements – in other words, concluding who on the basis of the evidence in different cases bears the greater blame. Risky as this would be, it brings the themes down to human level. But it raises the fundamental question: can history, especially recent history,

Read moreHow historians can provide correctives to “memory wars” in dealing with the past

We shouldn’t let another attempt to deal with the Troubles legacy slip by

The submission of five former secretaries of state of both parties to the UK government’s  consultation on their draft Legacy Bill gives significant backing to the idea of an amnesty or statute of limitations.  It amplifies the call some of them and retired security chiefs made in the House of Lords last month. If the decision was to rest with the British establishment alone, an amnesty by whatever name would have featured as a formal option for dealing with the … Read more

Bradley’s attempt to choke off debate on a statute of limitations will fail

In anticipation of the end of the consultation period on Friday for the proposals  on dealing with the Troubles’ legacy,  the secretary of state Karen Bradley writes in Eamonn Mallie’s website.. As the consultation is still live, I will not, at this stage, comment on specific suggestions. She then goes on to do precisely that, on the issue overhanging  the whole exercise  that has significant support at Westminster and in sections of NI opinion.  The military lobby is campaigning strongly … Read more

If the MoD stalls over the Ballymurphy inquest, you can forget drawing a line under the Troubles

The Channel 4 film “Massacre at Ballymurphy” will quickly be seized on as ammunition in the battle of narratives for dealing with the past.    Those who complain that not only the narrative but justice has become one sided may believe that the documentary has handed a propaganda victory to Sinn Fein: and so whatever the gross hypocrisy involved,  it probably has.  But this is beside the point.  To think of it only in Clausewitzian terms is to view it through the … Read more

Spurred on by the generals, the government now admit they’re considering an amnesty

For the first time the UK government have admitted they’re considering a general amnesty arising out of the Troubles.  Although an amnesty is not government policy, the admission came in a Lords debate instigated by the former Chief of General Staff of the Army Lord Dannatt, supported by other former top brass and former secretaries of state. What remains unclear is  how this would affect the Legacy package of the Stormont House Agreement, including the proposal for an independent Historical … Read more

The arrest of two journalists is a symptom of a bankrupt system for dealing with the Troubles legacy, with no solution in sight

The arrest and interrogation of two journalists  suspected of stealing documents  in connection  with  the making the film documentary No Stone Unturned on the Loughinisland murders, is a perfect example of how the current handing of the Troubles legacy is deeply unsatisfactory. In the present vacuum, the PSNI, which still retains  front-line legacy responsibilities,  seems to feel bound  to  be seen doing something, even in cases where they look self interested, counterproductive and downright foolish.  On the face of it … Read more

The consultation on the Legacy Bill has predictably divided along sectarian lines and is doomed to fail. Radical thinking is needed, and is available

Arthur Aughey, a doyen of thoughtful unionism, has made an important contribution to the Newsletter’s series on “the legacy scandal” ( no mistaking  their point of view). The draft Bill involves a civil service logic: it is time to get this done; the template has been agreed; so let’s get it done. From that bureaucratic angle, it all makes perfect sense. The Legacy Policy Team has done its job There is another logic in play, that of policing and justice. … Read more

What does Drew Harris’s appointment as Garda Commissioner tell us about Fine Gael’s attitude to Sinn Fein?

In the Irish Times Ed Moloney has a fascinating backgrounder on the ground breaking appointment of   PSNI Deputy Chief Constable  Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner. Might we now  expect that senior Garda officers will at last become eligible  to head the PSNI?  Or does  history suggest that a single force to serve the entire state creates too introverted a culture to adapt to elsewhere, even to the North?   Drew Harris brings heavy baggage with him and his  appointment will have … Read more

Veil of secrecy over Special Branch informer system lifted a chink as the Finucanes make their bid to the Supreme Court

The Guardian lead on the Walker report ( no relation), neatly coincides with the opening of the Finucane family’s bid to the Supreme Court to order a public inquiry into Pat Finucane’s murder.  The “secret”  report by a former head of MI5  complied in 1980 – nine years before he was murdered –  was  “the blueprint for making RUC special branch a ‘force within a force’, according to the human rights legal group the Committee on the Administration for Justice … Read more

Where Barra Magrory leads on dealing with the past, others will follow

No longer inhibited by  his former office, the ex- DPP Barra Magrory   isn’t alone in believing that an independent Historical Investigations Unit will produce few results for victims, survivors and families and could be more divisive than reconciling.  The best to be  hoped for is that once a renewed effort to bring cases to trial is made over five years, politicians and the public will face up to the issue of a calling halt to prosecutions, combined with a release … Read more

Avoid a battle of the narratives. The Chief Constable and Police Ombudsman appeal for agreement emerging from the proposed legacy process

Eamonn Mallie has published  transcripts of Chief Constable George Hamilton and Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire addressing a gathering at Queen’s University on the approaches they hope will be  adopted on the consultation just launched on dealing with the past. I shamelessly share them with warm thanks to Eamonn. Both  men plead for responders not to adopt a polarised or polemical position right from the start and take the broader view that works for reconciliation. They also call for a … Read more

“Statute of Limitations” would subvert the Belfast Agreement’s conditions on Troubles related murder

Tom Kelly on why the statute of limitations cannot be applied one-sidedly. In any case, he says, the provisions of the Belfast Agreement for a two-year sentence is an important mark of justice, which delineates the difference between innocent and guilty: The IRA didn’t act in the name of the Irish people and it justified its campaign with the most tenuous of links to an insurrection tradition from a different era. As a people, we were better at writing romantic laments … Read more

The unintended consequences of an amnesty for security forces are forensically exposed

The case for a selective amnesty for former security forces is powerfully refuted by the leading lawyer in the field Professor Kieran Mc Evoy of Queen’s in a Guardian article ( see below). Clearly someone got to Theresa May after Wednesday’s PMQs to make her change her mind. She did a similar U- turn yesterday over nominating two lay assessors to sit with the retired judge in parts of the Grenfell fire inquiry.  The same scary changeability can be seen … Read more

With all respect to concerned former soldiers, Theresa May is right to see off last minute demands for a selective amnesty

After appearing to side with her Defence Secretary on Wednesday in favouring a selective amnesty for former security forces in Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister has thought the better of it as the long delayed consultation on the Legacy Bill was launched. We are in the peculiar position of Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill broadly welcoming the Bill, while the  DUP leader Arlene Foster  contemplates a legal challenge to the High Court ruling that she wasn’t entitled to refuse to submit a … Read more

Superpatriotic ministers claim bias against soldiers in new Troubles investigations

Update.. May appears to back amnesty for former security forces   At Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday, Mrs May said the issue of a statute of limitations was “very important”. “At its heart, is the support and gratitude that we owe all those who have served in our armed forces,” she said. “The situation we have at the moment is that the only people being investigated for these issues are those in our armed forces or those who served in law enforcement … Read more

New revelations about the Ballymurphy massacre require urgent action by the British government

The report Mick highlights of a UVF sniper firing into Ballymurphy  at the time of the massacre in 1971 for  which up to now  1 Para was believed  to be mainly responsible,  underlines the paramount importance of finding out basic facts in dealing with the past. As I argued the other day, it is not only unacceptable but self-defeating for armchair soldiers in today’s battle of the narratives to thwart the rule of law, whether they are unionists defending the … Read more

On the legacy deadlock, equality before the law for the security forces is not moral equivalence with the IRA

Ruth Dudley Edwards has just commended “Legacy: What To Do About The Past in Northern Ireland”, a short book by Unionist councillor and redoubtable human right campaigner Jeff  Dudgeon,  edited mainly from the contributions at the conference on legacy legislation he organised in Belfast on March 3rd. As you’d expect, Ruth shares the passionately held view that the UK’s so far unseen draft Legacy Bill is based on a flawed approach developed by the traditional justice academic lawyers who to … Read more

I voted for peace, and all I got was this lousy culture war

I found this week’s 20 year commemoration of the Agreement quite surreal. Maybe it was because I was sick at home in my pyjamas and missed out on the bling of the big events. No basking in the glow of disgraced elderly politicians for me… Instead, I was more struck by how sad and stuck everything feels right now. It feels like we voted for peace, but all we got was this lousy culture war. By culture war, in this … Read more