Ben Lowry ended his Saturday essay about collusion with this: “A simpler way to begin rebalancing the approach to the past would be to refine the sweeping meaning of collusion.”
Definitions and collectively agreed meanings of a word do matter at times like this. They matter because one question is unavoidable: is collusion ever morally justified?
Let’s, for example, argue that in certain circumstances it is a legitimate tactic—in responding to crises like war, terrorism, brutal criminality and drug cartels—for the state to infiltrate organisations, if the end purpose is to destabilise and destroy them.
If that point is conceded it raises further points about how far the state can go. Should it allow very bad things to happen—often to entirely innocent people—if it believes that revealing its own hand too soon would wreck any chances of destroying the organisation?
A substantial body of historical evidence suggests that collusion—if we define it as the state/security/intelligence services infiltrating organisations and deploying informants—has helped to destroy criminal gangs and undermine the threats from and capability of terrorist groups.
But we also know that the consequences of collusion have resulted in the deaths of people who would have been saved had a decision been made to intervene to prevent particular attacks and bombings.
So is there ever a case for arguing that the murder of innocent people in those circumstances is justified if, in the long term, the organisation that killed them is emasculated?
That question is particularly difficult to answer in NI, because we know that most of the organisations (I’m assuming that collusion was used as a tactic against the IRA, UVF, RHC, UDA etc) were not, in fact, destroyed. Indeed, the evidence would suggest that state policy was to democratise and politicise them, rather than destroy them.
There is also evidence to suggest that some loyalist groups may have been encouraged to act in the way they did because it was believed that it might put pressure on the IRA to row back from terrorism and embrace politics.
If that is the case—and so many things in NI remain matters of conjecture—then a conclusion to be drawn is that collusion was used for political purposes (as part of a very particular strategic endgame by successive governments) rather than security purposes (the destruction and removal from the arena of terrorist groups). If that is the case, could we still argue that collusion was justified?
I have no doubt whatsoever that collusion—in the sense that I defined it earlier—was used as a tactic from the very earliest days of the Troubles. And nor have I any doubt that the various terrorist organisations were well aware of it and factored it into their thinking.
It’s part and parcel of terrorism and counter-terrorism; always has been and always will be.
But whether it is ever justified is probably one of those questions which can never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, particularly if you discover that your dad, mum, brother, sister, husband, wife or close friend was killed as a consequence of that collusion.
That must really hurt, because it almost looks as if the state itself sanctioned the death.
That said, it’s a mistake to confuse that collusion with the activities of individual police officers, soldiers, intelligence agents and informants who ‘went rogue’ and allowed their personal and political beliefs to dictate actions that were clearly outside the normal rules of engagement; even those that fell into the category of sanctioned ‘black ops’.
It’s also a mistake to confuse collusion with the activities of some policing/intelligence groups who ran their own operations their own way, often without permission, let alone consultation.
I’ve just finished re-reading Harry’s Game, published in 1975, and it reminded me of just how hodgepodge the counter-terrorist tactics could be.
This is something I wrote in this column in October 2013: What is truth? In Anne Cadwallader’s new book, Lethal Allies—British Collusion in Ireland, she says, “Moving on is impossible when the truth lies buried in a barren field in Co Armagh without a headstone. Clichés are not enough for families who were not only bereaved but also ignored for half a century and then fed lies. What future does any community have that refuses to uncover or understand the truths of its recent past?”
I agree with her. But what is that truth? I think we’ve reached that point at which truth is what we want it to be: what we need it to be.
Truth, in those circumstances, must be something that confirms our own outlook and end goal.
How could it be anything other than that when we live in a conflict-stalemate world of competing narratives, conflicting agendas, contradictory memories and clashing constitutional ambitions?
How can truth be objective or absolute when the root of the conflict hasn’t been resolved; when we can’t agree on the name of the country we supposedly share; when the two power blocs serve only the interests of their own side; and when consensus on key issues remains as elusive as it has been since June 1921?
Collusion is a crucially important tactic in combatting terrorism, even if it involves relatively small numbers. It’s long term impact can be devastating, though: meaning that continuing denial, dismissal, brushing off or cover-up is the very worst response from the state when faced with the need to acknowledge and accept ultimate responsibility.