Ben Lowry: The far-reaching scale of the scandal on legacy still seems not to be properly understood

One of the most striking things about the controversy over the legacy of the Troubles is the muted reaction of people you would expect to stand up for the UK and its role in seeing off the long terrorist campaign.

Saturday, 13th June 2020, 1:54 pm
Updated Saturday, 13th June 2020, 2:28 pm
Lord Howell, then David Howell MP, left in 1973 with William Whitelaw at Stormont Castle, has said the Supreme Court was wrong on in its recent ruling that Gerry Adams was unlawfully detained. In an extraordinary article that reflects growing anger at what is happening on legacy, Lord Howell said that it was the clear understanding of Parliament that junior ministers like him could approve internment orders

I am talking about the near silence from tiers of retired police, military, judges, civil servants, intelligence operatives, politicians, government ministers, academics and journalists.

Also the lawyers who can counter the implication of past rough justice here, and who know how hard it became to convict terrorists to the criminal standard as the Troubles progressed and paramilitaries got skilled at covering their tracks.

Recently we have heard on these pages from teachers who have contrasted the way they kept schools open all through 1972, when Northern Ireland teetered on the brink of civil war, with the timid reaction to reopening classrooms after Covid.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But there are many others who could testify to the struggle to keep society operating during the terror: the businessmen who kept going when the IRA tried to blow the heart out of Belfast, the medical people who became expert in treating injuries over three decades, the transport bosses who kept society moving, the churchmen, etc.

Barely any other nation would have reacted with such restraint to such a long-running campaign, yet the UK and its supporters have been so hopeless at challenging the widespread collusion narrative — which falls easily on even a cursory scrutiny, given the small number of terrorists killed and the patently bad nature of loyalist intelligence — that the story of a murderous UK state and a necessary IRA keeps advancing.

This distortion is helped massively by the fact that the failures of the UK during that time (which were many) are being pored over, with no spotlight on their context of determined terrorism.

Some people have spoken out, such as the several dozen contributors to our Stop The Legacy Scandal series of essays in 2018, but their contributions were ignored outside these pages. I have seen many broadcast panel chats post 2018 which did not have a dissenting voice on the direction of legacy.

Other voices, such as an older Alliance Party generation, John Cushnahan and Dr Philip McGarry, have spoken with passion about how terror was not justified.

But thousands of people who held positions of influence could help counter the distortions that are influencing young people.

Much of the reticence to speak up is rooted in the fear of being branded a bigot if you defend the security forces, which — if you are Protestant — is likely unless done in the mildest terms.

More often, including in informed circles in London, it is evident that a lot of people still do not realise how far reaching is the scandal.

They seem to think it is just about some low-ranking elderly soldiers facing murder trials for single shootings when terrorist leaders, who were allowed to orchestrate decades of murder and mayhem unmolested, do not.

Others appear to believe that if the definition of a victim, drawn up to keep terrorists happy, is changed then that will transform things.

Or they think that if the Police Misconduct scandal is removed from the Stormont House legacy structures then the rest of that deal is OK (the RUC alone was set to be judged on alleged past misconduct when IRA terrorists will only be investigated for killings and not the people they paralysed, or the almost incalculable cost of their bombings on property).

Or they think that if the Irish government co-operates properly in the Kingsmills inquest, then that tiny contribution to one sickening sectarian massacre among many will begin to make up for the decades in which Irish territory was a safe space for IRA terrorists (to escape the NI authorities, and plan their next murder of an isolated Protestant farmer or their next bombing of the mainland). It won’t.

Yet on almost every front the scandal with legacy is worsening, and the UK state lavishly funds it, such as on legal aid for civil actions against the security forces alone.

The libel bullying by terrorists, which is made easier because the DUP did not help reform Northern Ireland’s libel laws (a DUP that for a long while stuck to the line that a police misconduct element was needed in new structures to get such cases away from the Police Ombudsman — but what about the party, which has so much influence, addressing the fundamental injustice that either way only the police face historic investigations that would not meet the criminal threshold?)

Think of the saga when Mr Justice McCloskey issued what the security forces feel was one of the few key judgements in their favour, ruling collusion findings unsustainable in law, but then stepped aside, only for another judge to issue a completely different ruling.

Or the non reportage (outside of this paper) of one of he most important dissenting legacy judgements (Mr Justice Deeny when the NI Appeal Court appeared to challenge the Strasbourg court’s ruling that the hooded men did not suffer torture).

A Deeny ruling was recently overturned by the appeal court in the Good Samaritan killings (by the IRA but latterly blamed on the RUC for not warning its victims). The appeal court has now applied pressure for yet another costly inquest into that case (ie into alleged state failures).

Then there is the disproportionate legacy investigations into the state and trials (outlined in this column on March 7, see link below). Yet people in positions of influence have rushed to say that there is no imbalance.

The UK has responded weakly to Ireland’s — a state will face no scrutiny on the past due to the Stormont House deal not insisting on such — attempts to humiliate it before the Council of Europe over historic investigations into allegations against the UK.

And there is the fact that instead of celebrating the intelligence penetration of the IRA via Stakeknife, state elements might actually end up in deep trouble over that huge success.

The London think tank Policy Exchange has conveyed the contempt — and there is no other word for it — with which experienced Whitehall figures have reacted to the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that the internment of Gerry Adams was unlawful because it had not been signed by the then secretary of state William Whitelaw (the court over-ruled the NI appeal court).

It was remarkable enough that a professor of constitutional law at Oxford, Richard Ekins, and Sir Stephen Laws (see link below), who was in charge of drafting government legislation, were scathing about the judgement, but it was astonishing that a former attorney general for England and Wales and a former head of the UK civil service agreed that emergency laws are needed to make clear the internment was lawful.

Then Lord Howell’s essay for Policy Exchange, first published in this paper on Wednesday (see link below), made clear that it was the intention of Parliament that junior ministers such as him could sign internment orders.

These are the sort of influential people who should be speaking up across the UK about legacy, because the madness of the state-funded anti-state legacy juggernaut has only paused during Covid.

Numerous developments have suggested that if the UK emerges from the crisis near bankrupt, it won’t matter: placating nationalist Ireland on its view of the UK during the Troubles will continue to be an ongoing vast expenditure.

If so, then those who could have spoken out about this outrage will be damned by their silence.

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

• Other reactions to the Supreme Court ruling below

——— ———

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe