Ben Lowry: Republican terrorist atrocities are increasingly being partly blamed on the security forces

Five years ago, in early 2016, it emerged that the Police Ombudsman was investigating a complaint about the RUC handling of the IRA Shankill bomb.

Saturday, 24th July 2021, 10:02 am
Updated Sunday, 25th July 2021, 12:00 pm
The 1992 IRA massacre of seven Protestants at Teebane, one of a number of IRA atrocities for which the security forces are being blamed for not stopping it. Republicans are now criticising the security forces for, in effect, not having been tougher and more effective in stopping republican violence

The claim was that police had known about the planned explosion in advance from an IRA informant, and had failed to act on it.

Ten people were killed in that massacre.

It struck me as the latest in a number of claims in which the blame for IRA killings was being subtly shifted to the security forces.

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I penned what I intended to be a satirical article about this trend towards trying to blame the state for not preventing an attack, and so to imply that the authorities shared culpability with the terrorists.

“It is easier to look ahead at what could yet happen,” I wrote. “Enniskillen and La Mon and Teebane, for example. Don’t be surprised to hear coming reports of collusion or heroic informants thwarted by the security forces. Expect probes into state responsibility for what we had always naively assumed were straightforward sectarian IRA bloodbaths.”

I was trying to be blackly humorous. But I did not in fact know a deeply unfunny fact: that the RUC had already been accused of having advance warning of Teebane.

Later I learned of some claims that shadowy state figures had allowed the 1987 Poppy Day massacre to proceed.

Think also of the 1998 Omagh bomb, the worst republican atrocity of the Troubles — which is saying something, given that there were so many of them. It is in the headlines after yesterday’s court ruling that a new investigation is needed to examine claims that the security services could have stopped the republican atrocity.

But cast your mind back to the police ombudsman report, which was highly critical of the RUC handing of the Omagh investigation.

It was published 20 years ago and the police failings have been cited ever since in connection with the atrocity.

Thus for most of the last 23 years there has been a pall over the RUC’s role, and almost an implication that police and terrorists are to blame.

The ombudsman then was careful to emphasise that the bombers were in fact to blame.

A later police ombudsman similarly emphasised that the IRA was to blame for the ‘Good Samaritan’ bomb in a house in the Creggan when three friends were killed as they went to check on a neighbour.

The ombudsman made that point about IRA culpability in a report in which police were criticised for not warning residents of the possible danger.

However, the lingering sense over time was of yet another incident in which the security forces, for whatever reason, shared some blame in the outcome of an IRA attack.

It was not unreasonable for the judge yesterday to say a new Omagh investigation could look at “whether a more proactive campaign of disruption [of dissident terrorists], especially if coordinated north and south of the border”, could have prevented the bombing.

And the Omagh families cannot be faulted for their determination to get the full truth as to what happened in 1998, and what could have been done to stop it.

What I find contemptible however is some of the republican voices who emerge from the woodwork to join in these increasingly common retrospective attacks on the security forces for, in effect, not having been tougher on republicans.

In fact it is not just republicans who are hypocritical. More moderate nationalists are often as quick to blame state investigations, yet furiously resisted any efforts to give the state forces some of the powers that they need to disrupt terrorists.

This newspaper has been almost alone in criticising the shockingly slack bail and sentencing policies that have applied to republicans facing serious terror charges or convicted of such offences.

But if, for example, there is a dissident atrocity next year (let us hope not), will we in future years criticise the police for not doing enough in 2021 to thwart those terrorists? It will be unpardonable if so, given the reluctance to get tough now on republicans who plot death.

Ideally past police probe failings would be rigorously examined, yet that is hardly feasible given the number of past investigations.

But in some quarters there is a determination to blame UK state forces not only for colluding in loyalist killings, but for somehow acquiescing in republican ones too. It is a bid to dilute the fact that republicans killed 60% of Troubles dead.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor