Ben Lowry: If legacy structures make IRA and state seem equally at fault it will be the final moral collapse

At last, a proper grilling by an interviewer over the legacy imbalance scandal. Conservative MP Steve Barclay, left, is firecely questioned by Andrew Neil, right, on the Daily Politics, BBC, May 9 2018. A full transcript of the exchange is at the bottom of this article. Also present in the pic is the Labour MP Anneliese Dodds. Screen grab from BBC
At last, a proper grilling by an interviewer over the legacy imbalance scandal. Conservative MP Steve Barclay, left, is firecely questioned by Andrew Neil, right, on the Daily Politics, BBC, May 9 2018. A full transcript of the exchange is at the bottom of this article. Also present in the pic is the Labour MP Anneliese Dodds. Screen grab from BBC

The push to draw a moral equivalence between IRA and security forces during the Troubles is so relentless that it is easy to feel weary about it all.

As one claim after another of loyalist-state ‘collusion’ is uncritically picked up by the media, apart from a few outlets such as this newspaper, you get used to the all the focus falling on villainous Britain.

Look at the aggressive way the spotlight fell on the prime minister for her comment this week, mistaken in fact but accurate in tone, that terrorists are not investigated. They are, but a focus is on the state.

This week Andrew Neil, former Sunday Times editor and now BBC political host, confounded those of us who are resigned to journalistic failure in the face of the ever advancing soft-on-IRA approach.

Mr Neil puts fierce questions to guests on his show regardless of their stance. This time, he asked a Conservative minister, Steve Barclay MP, about who killed the most people in the Troubles (the full script of the TV exchange is below).

We have all seen similarly aggressive political interviews here in Northern Ireland but I have not seen questioning that comes at Troubles legacy matters from the angle Mr Neil did.

Indeed, one of the most hard hitting interviews I have seen in recent months was one in which a unionist politician who claimed such an anti-state imbalance was (of course) hounded and then presented with an oft cited figure on the BBC (that of 1,118 deaths investigated by the PSNI legacy branch, 354 were by the security forces). As if this proves that there is no imbalance because most probes are into terrorists.

But it is an easy statistic: 32% of cases are on security force killings.

Many people now know to point out that only 10% of Troubles deaths were at the hands of the state, as Andrew Neil said. So it is immediately clear there is an imbalance.

But it is worse even than at first it seems.

It seems that 32% of investigations are into state when it should be 10%. In fact, it is 32% into state, when it should be at most 3%. This is because the overwhelming majority of the 10% of overall killings (those carried out by the state) were clearly legitimate.

If all state killings are examined as if potentially illegal (as is the case because almost all state killings are now with PSNI legacy branch) it means each elderly ex security force member who killed someone, perhaps in unavoidable and often dangerous circumstances, will now fear a possible criminal probe.

Yesterday a public consultation on the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) legacy structures was launched. There is much to say about SHA, such as on the legacy inquests demanded by Sinn Fein (it seems the government does not even have the stomach to appeal the ruling that it must hold an inquest into the IRA murder gang stopped by the SAS at Loughgall).

But there is only room this week to focus on the main problem with the mooted legacy bodies: that state forces are far more vulnerable to them than terrorists because they had records, as the coming murder trials of elderly soldiers shows.

The proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), is the only body that is likely to uncover major information on the mountain of unsolved past terrorism.

It will investigate deaths chronologically, so it is in theory proportionate in its focus, but even so it might uncover as much on state as on terrorist, even if it tries to maintain rigorous impartiality.

This might only lead to a few convictions, of security forces and terrorist. If so, if HIU does not lead to far more findings against terrorists, it will be the final proof that the UK has suffered a moral collapse.

It will be a signal that we will let history record that a British state that patiently saw off republican violence, inflicted against the overwhelming democratic wish of the people of this island, was in fact roughly as bad as the IRA.

It will mean we have in effect conceded the collusion lie: that the British state systematically aided loyalist terror — when it clearly prevented loyalists from getting their hands on the vast amount of data the state held on IRA killers.

The sick punchline to such a verdict will be that every IRA man alive knows British brutality is a lie, or they and hundreds of their peers would have been massacred.

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

ANDREW NEIL EXCHANGE

The exchange was on the BBC Daily Politics show on Wednesday. Andrew Neil first asked the government minister, Steve Barclay MP (Health), about the fact that a statute of limitations for Iraqi veterans was introduced after some of them “were hounded, often by ambulance chasing lawyers”. Why was there not one for Northern Ireland veterans? Mr Neil said that there were 240 cases pending involving former soldiers and British officials. How many IRA are being investigated he asked? Later the exchange went:

ANDREW NEIL: ‘In the Troubles over the 30 years, roughly what was the balance of killings between the terrorists and the British forces?’

STEVE BARCLAY: ‘It is usually the ... terrorists and it is right that due process is followed for them.’

AN: ‘No , no, no you just dribble on about due process. I have asked you a specific question. What’s the balance of killings between the terrorists and British forces?’

SB: ‘Well I haven’t got a precise figure but much of weight ...’

AN: ‘Well I will give you the precise figure. 90% of the killings were carried out by the terrorists — 90%. Yet we know a number of them were pardoned, others were given letters of comfort, we know of over 200 cases involving veterans, we do not know of any involving the IRA, were is the justice in any of that?’

SB: ‘Well what is justice is that we look at cases chronologically, we look at cases fairly ...’

AN: ‘The IRA was killing before the British army. If you are chronological, why are there no IRA involved in this?’

SB: ‘Well no-one is suggesting for a minute that we don’t prosecute terrorists who have committed crimes but there is a methodology ...’

AN: ‘When did you last prosecute a member of the IRA?’

SB: ‘Well there has been as part of the process agreements that were reached ...’

AN: ‘When did you last prosecute a member of the IRA?’

SB: ‘Well it was a number of years ago because there has been a peace process through which these issues have been looked at.

AN: ‘There have been no major prosecutions since they were pardoned but you are now planning to prosecute British veterans.’

SB: ‘No, what we are planning to do is have a consultation where victims are able to see due process and that is ...’

AN: ‘... you are aware that there are veterans already going through for murders of 46 years ago, of British veterans – murders claimed 46 years ago, that is already happening.’

SB: ‘Which is why it is important we have the right protections in place for veterans the vast majority of whom have served with great distinction ...’

AN: ‘They are already being prosecuted. Can you tell me any IRA veteran that is being prosecuted?’

SB: ‘I can’t give you a specific on the IRA but this is why we have a consultation in order to get the balance right and to ensure that cases are investigated.’

AN: ‘I still don’t understand where the balance is right if there is over 200 former veterans and British officials and so far you can’t tell me one IRA, where is the balance in that?’