BBC Spotlight was judge and jury to Special Branch but gave no context


The BBC Spotlight programme on May 12 about a Special Branch ballistics unit that is being investigated over its links to weapons used in 60 murders raised for me a number of concerns.

Firstly it seemed to be judge and jury in relation to the actions of Special Branch and certainly while, quite properly, serious issues were raised, it is very difficult to understand them without a very deep analysis and knowledge of the extremely complex world of counter-terrorism and the judgement calls made in those very difficult times.

Trevor Ringland

Trevor Ringland

However they should be interpreted while bearing in mind the overriding principle that applied, namely that Special Branch officers’, like other police officers, primary duty was to prevent the loss of life and the destruction of property.

Many of the modern rules governing counter-terrorism measures were written in Northern Ireland during our “Troubles”.

What is too often ignored about the actions of Special Branch and other members of the security services is that they also saved thousands of lives and prevented our society from descending into a civil war with all its much more tragic consequences.

There was a line though that they should not cross.

The problem for the officers was that it was not always clear where that line was as its position was an evolving one.

Another point of worry to me was that the daughter of one of the police officers who was murdered, and whose murder was featured in the programme, being interviewed and the issues put before her as if they automatically led to a definite conclusion i.e. that somehow the police could have prevented the murder of her father.

She was also allowed to state that in some way her father was a legitimate target.

No member of the security forces was ever a “legitimate target”.

Members of the security services were trying to prevent conflict whereas paramilitaries were promoting it.

I do question whether the BBC should have used someone who has experienced such trauma and tragedy in the programme and present the matter to her in such a way that she comes to the conclusion which they wanted her to, rather than a more detailed consideration around the complex issues that the whole matter highlighted.

Surely it is also for the Police Ombudsman’s Office to investigate and provide evidence to the Public Prosecution Service, which it either acts upon or not?

Surely they should not be in the media speculating on matters they are charged with investigating?

Finally while there was much focus on the alleged actions of the Special Branch unit I would have thought that for many of those involved one of the obvious questions emerging out of the set of circumstances would have been that if an informer had previously given the police the weapons used in a murder then that informer would probably have a good idea as to who actually pulled the trigger to murder the Police Officers and who sent them to do so.

Surely the focus should be on that first and foremost and in that respect I would imagine that any cursory examination of the file would immediately identify the names involved and result in a very active investigation to try and prove to the necessary criminal standard who was responsible for those murders.

The issues raised by the Spotlight programme repeats the same wearied narrative that fails to balance issues such as these murders within a broader context.

The context of murder and mayhem and that paramilitaries killed many more members of the security forces than those of them who were killed by the State seems to not matter.

It seems that the narrative driven in some sections is either uninformed of the statistics concerning responsibility for killing and maimings or is more interested in the state/collusion nexus.

Much programming in highlighting erroneous state action do a public service but that must be balanced by examining the greater bulk of wrongdoing.

In sum, as there are some 700 other outstanding murders of members of the security services that still require to be fully investigated and resolved, perhaps Mrs Clooney should be engaged to investigate if the state is failing to investigate them properly or why some who call for the inspection of state actions fail to provide transparency about the majority of violence conducted by paramilitaries.

The lack of balance harms survivors who feel further abused by the silence of their loss.