Ben Lowry: Only in NI would we face the lunacy in which the state’s right to stop mass murder is disputed

The bullet-riddled Hiace van in which IRA men were shot dead by the SAS outside Loughgall RUC station in 1987. The killings, which will be examined in a News Letter supplement on Monday, were clearly legitimate but could in theory lead to soldiers in the dock if any inquest concludes the killings were unlawful. Picture Pacemaker
The bullet-riddled Hiace van in which IRA men were shot dead by the SAS outside Loughgall RUC station in 1987. The killings, which will be examined in a News Letter supplement on Monday, were clearly legitimate but could in theory lead to soldiers in the dock if any inquest concludes the killings were unlawful. Picture Pacemaker

In Britain at the moment anti terrorist police are being trained to shoot lorry drivers.

Given that the vehicles have been used as weapons to massacre civilians in Berlin and Nice and Stockholm, the public would expect nothing less.

The lorry, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes, that was used to kill civilians in Nice in the summer of 2016, until police shot the driver dead (AP)

The lorry, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes, that was used to kill civilians in Nice in the summer of 2016, until police shot the driver dead (AP)

People must be protected from would-be mass murderers. It ought to go without saying.

Across the western world the security forces and intelligence agencies are desperately improving their skills and knowledge to try to save life from the threat of fanatical Islamic terrorists.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland there is a growing push for legacy inquests into incidents, including Loughgall, in which the state forces in 1987 killed fanatical IRA murderers, some of whom had killed multiple people in previous incidents.

This is lunacy.

The scene after a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin in December 2016. The attacker was later shot dead in Italy. Photo: Claire Hayhurst/PA Wire

The scene after a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin in December 2016. The attacker was later shot dead in Italy. Photo: Claire Hayhurst/PA Wire

Inquests into the Troubles deaths of almost 100 people are in the pipeline, mostly at the hands of state forces. There is said to be an obligation to hold a satisfactory investigation into such deaths under Article Two of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Many of these deaths involve civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and, tragically, were killed by the police and army – most often the latter.

Relatives have cruelly waited decades for resolution – in some cases after lies were told by the authorities about their loved ones.

There must be a way to resolve these cases before more relatives die that avoids the sweeping legacy inquest system.

The problem with the inquests is that at least two dozen of the dead are terrorists. By our calculations (we will give details in coming weeks) the figure is closer to three dozen – if so, more than a third of the cases.

It is hard for the authorities to stipulate: ‘This case was one in which a terrorist died but that one was one in which a civilian died,’ because there are a handful of cases where the role of the people who died is disputed.

At Loughgall, eight hardened IRA terrorists were killed but a civilian was caught in the crossfire.

The legally blind thing to do is to hold inquests into all such cases.

But that brings us to the scandalous situation in which hundreds of terror victims, perhaps over 1,000, have almost no prospect of justice. A few of them are even people whose loved one died at the hands of fanatics such as Jim Lynagh, killed with obvious legitimacy by the SAS at Loughgall, yet the state is set to fund a mini inquiry into those 1987 IRA men’s deaths. (On Monday we publish a supplement into the Loughgall killings on the 30th anniversary)

It is possible that SAS men will in that, or other incidents in which they killed IRA killers, be found to have done something wrong in a split second, and be tried for murder.

As we have begun to tell the stories of IRA victims’ relatives, who have contacted us in dismay after the gushing tributes to Martin McGuinness on his death, the scale of the grief caused by the terror group which he led has become all too apparent.

Now think about this Article Two point for a moment.

I defy any human rights activist to tour European cities now to insist the authorities carry out robust ECHR compliant investigations under Article Two into cases in which special forces shot dead Islamic terrorists.

Try instigating a process that puts Bataclan Theatre Parisian police at risk of trial.

Try in London to ask aggressive questions about the police who shot dead the crazed Westminster attacker after he left five people dead.

Then try, without laughing, to think about forcing the Americans to interrogate their state forces that way.

I only got one question of Bill Clinton as he left Martin McGuinness’s funeral, but with more time I would have asked him how he – the man who dashed back to Arkansas to execute someone before his 1992 election – would have reacted to IRA terror.

The thousands of people who have read his excellent pieces this week (links below) will have been delighted to see the former bomber Shane Paul O’Doherty highlight the hypocrisy of those Americans who indulge IRA terror when they are so vigilant about the terror threat in the US.

Yet such close scrutiny of state killings of brutal terrorists is happening here.

Sinn Fein politicians including Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Kelly, Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness have repeatedly taken advantage of the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan’s scrupulous (and strictly legal) arguments calling for the legacy inquests to push their own agenda on the past.

Given their role in the political wing of the terror organisation that until recently murdered judges (and in a failed such bid murdering Mary Travers at a Catholic church) watching them manipulate the comments of the widely respected Sir Declan has been a grisly spectacle.

The SAS Loughgall killings are subject of two legal cases: a private prosecution of the state and a judicial review to force an inquest (on which unionists and London have rightly stalled).

Ms O’Neill’s appearance at a Loughgall commemoration has brought an outpouring of criticism from unionist and other voices, including on these pages last week Alliance’s Stephen Farry. But while Ms O’Neill’s presence suggested she is unfit to be first minister, foolish comments are of nothing to the thought that Loughgall might get a state-funded inquest.

People across the spectrum are beginning to speak up on legacy. There have been blistering pieces about the IRA from Catholic commentators, from Shane Paul to Dr Philip McGarry and John Cushnahan (links below) on these pages to Eilis O’Hanlon in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

In any sane world these points would barely need to be made, given the long list of IRA atrocities. Sinn Fein was comprehensively rejected at the ballot box on both sides of the border after it began to contest elections in the 1980s, so the people who lived through it know what terrorism was. But recent events have shown that these outspoken anti IRA voices are nonetheless needed.

Supremely naive statements from people including Protestant churchmen on the death of Martin McGuinness showed as much. Yes, he travelled a long way and yes he delivered the republican movement in a way that no current Sinn Fein politician has both the ability and the inclination to do, but for a churchman not so much as to mention his past is a grievous failure of his victims.

An ‘ethics’ discussion on Radio Ulster after the death of McGuinness did not even include on its panel anyone who had an uncompromising view of terror. Some of the contributors came perilously close to saying that Norman Tebbit, whose wife has been paralysed since the 1984 Brighton bomb, was wrong to be so unforgiving (other panellists wisely steered clear of such a judgement).

Yesterday, in what is said to be an unusual legal move, prosecutors over-rode a judge’s dismissal of the attempted murder charge against a soldier, Dennis Hutchings, 75, for a 1974 killing. Yet there is no trace of trials of terrorist leaders.

No doubt there are innocent explanations for that. But however much some politicians want to resurrect Stormont, it will be an unpardonable betrayal of the way this society reacted with forbearance, restraint and forgiveness to the IRA onslaught (and to the hundreds of Catholic civilians shot or blown up by loyalists) if that happens without a process that is guaranteed – not merely likely – to name and shame the terrorist leaders who are dripping in blood.

And a process that is guaranteed to put state responses to terror in context, and give thanks for the state’s shining overall success in outwitting the men of violence.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Shane Paul O’Doherty Part 1: Legacy of McGuinness and IRA is 30 years of terror and so many lies they can barely tell what a lie is

Shane Paul O’Doherty Pt 2: Allowing Tricolour in Catholic church for McGuinness funeral reflects dangerous morality on how terror

Shane Paul O’Doherty Pt 3: Terrorists should be told that they must repent fully

Dr Philip McGarry: The terrorism of McGuinness and others was not mindless, it was mindful

John Cushnahan: I lived in the Falls as the Troubles erupted but a deprived background is no excuse for joining the IRA