Handing legacy to IRA is one of the biggest scandals since WW2

It is an immense scandal to have in effect handed the IRA the narrative on the past, by throwing the whole appartus of the state against the reputation of the state during the Troubles, and not challenging claims about the extent of 'collusion'
It is an immense scandal to have in effect handed the IRA the narrative on the past, by throwing the whole appartus of the state against the reputation of the state during the Troubles, and not challenging claims about the extent of 'collusion'

A number of critics of the one-sided handling of legacy in Northern Ireland were at Westminster yesterday to outline their concerns, including the former MP Danny Kinahan and the barrister Austen Morgan. They had earlier contributed to a seminar at Malone House in March, the contents of which have been turned into a book. Below is the talk that News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry gave to that event. There have been a number of developments since the speech below, but that he says have merely reiterated his concerns:

This week was a pretty standard week when it comes to legacy developments in Northern Ireland.

Cover of book: 'Legacy - what to do about the past in Northern Ireland' edited by Jeff Dudgeon, with contributors including Ben Lowry, Trevor Ringland, Danny Kinahan, Professor Arthur Aughey, Dr Cillian McGrattan, Neil Faris and Ken Funston. published in April 2018

Cover of book: 'Legacy - what to do about the past in Northern Ireland' edited by Jeff Dudgeon, with contributors including Ben Lowry, Trevor Ringland, Danny Kinahan, Professor Arthur Aughey, Dr Cillian McGrattan, Neil Faris and Ken Funston. published in April 2018

Two judges decided that prosecutors had been wrong not to charge a soldier over a Troubles shooting in Londonderry.

Last year the reverse happened in a case: a judge threw out an attempted murder charge against a soldier over a historic shooting but the Director of Public Prosecutions reinstated it.

Also this week, the BBC had yet another news investigation into circumstances around an alleged case of ‘collusion’ — in this case a surgeon who is backing someone who says he was forced out of the Army because he raised concerns about collusion.

Week after week after week, we read of some setback for the state in legacy matters for the Troubles.

News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry, in the paper's Belfast offices

News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry, in the paper's Belfast offices

Occasionally we hear of some success for the state but it usually just means that a republican legal action has failed, or perhaps been overturned at appeal.

In other words, success for the state merely means the republican narrative advance, so lavishly and endlessly funded by the state, has advanced at a slower pace.

The scandal of a state that prevented civil war and a determined and ruthless IRA campaign to terrorise an ethnic group in Northern Ireland, and to subvert democracy in the United Kingdom (up to and including trying to blow the Cabinet to smithereens, first in Brighton in 1984 and then in Whitehall itself in 1991), acquiescing in the IRA narrative is one that rolls on and on – indeed with minimal comment.

Take those two developments this week and then try to imagine parallel developments having happened.

Imagine that this week it had emerged that a senior republican and Sinn Fein figure will indeed face prosecution for terrorist charges of the utmost gravity, that a judge had thrown it out but it had been reinstated.

Or try to imagine that this week the BBC had decided that the whole sweeping application of the word collusion was so potentially misleading, and such a powerful aid to the IRA narrative of the Troubles of British brutality, that it needed an entire documentary of its own.

I am not suggesting that the BBC should take any one view of the Troubles, such as the view that I might have or any one person in this room or elsewhere.

I am just suggesting that having done so much reporting on collusion claims or findings that it might produce an entire documentary, just one, to consider the matter from another angle.

From this angle: Could it be the case — just could it be the case — that the word is being used to imply calculated, active state support for loyalist murder when in actual fact proven instances of collusion often relate to failures in the prevention or detection of such terrorism?

Such a single documentary from that perspective could easily be justified given there is a large number of influential people who believe that that is exactly how the word collusion is being mis-used.

It would go some way to balance the many news reports and BBC investigations that have taken collusion at face value.

For be very clear about one thing. The single greatest aid to the pro IRA narrative is the collusion lie.

The lie that the British state in cahoots with loyalists engaged in wholesale murder and mayhem.

The lie is easily disproved (yet so rarely disproved by commentators who would merely need to summarise the numbers of dead in the Troubles by victim category).

I used merely to call it a myth. Eighteen months ago I wrote a piece entitled ‘The Growing Myth of Loyalist Collusion’ after the highly misleading way that the second Loughinisland’s report finding of collusion — commissioned after the first report failed to find the said collusion — was relayed in the media.

The very clear impression that has been sent out was that the RUC facilitated and supported that 1994 massacre, despite the fact that near the top of the report it confirms that there was no evidence that police knew the attack was about to take place.

Then, recently, as the supposed fact of collusion at Loughinisland was again highlighted, this time in the film No Stone Unturned, someone in the Twittersphere mockingly retweeted my article, ‘The Myth Of Loyalist Collusion’ (link below).

His belief was that the documentary was yet another piece of evidence of collusion that showed that my view was so absurd that the retweeting my piece about, ‘The Myth of Loyalist Collusion’ would embarrass me.

Well, not only does it not embarrass me, and not only do I not resile from that article, I have moved on to refer to the collusion ‘lie’ rather than the ‘myth’.

It is such a distortion of events and it is so damaging to the state’s record that it must be called out very clearly as the lie that it is.

Since I first started writing about this years ago I have always made clear my unequivocal view that there were instances of collusion.

There were instances indeed of the very worst collusion, in which the state illegally murdered people or elements of the state set people up for murder.

I remember well the period beginning around 1989, around the time of the vile murder of Pat Finucane, when as a student I was watching events closely and when loyalist intelligence suddenly seemed to get good.

Shootings such as that of Eddie Fullerton in Donegal, using a boat across the Foyle, or at Cappagh in 1991 when the UVF shot dead three IRA men.

But even from the earlier decades of the Troubles we know about the Glennane Gang and the Miami Showband. We know that there were loyalists in the security forces.

No person with any credibility would deny that there were many instances of illegality and collusion.

My point is that they were many in absolute terms, scores of cases, but tiny in proportionate terms, out of the 3,700 overall killings.

The abiding fact about loyalist terrorism is how bad its intelligence was. By some accounts less than 50 of the 1,100 people murdered by loyalists were republican paramilitaries.

Given that 97% of the UDR was Protestant, many of whom had a clearly loyalist culture, and given that 90% of the RUC was Protestant, which particularly in its reserve had a unionist culture, and given that these soldiers and police officers often had calling cards that identified suspects that they should be looking out for, it is surprising that loyalists were not routinely tipped off as to the details of republicans, resulting in the latter being killed illegally.

The facts of what happened in the case of the UDR Four, of course, have long been disputed but if we take the alleged case in outline and imagine a parallel case in which such claims were true, then it is notable that such cases didn’t happen several times a night, hundreds of times a year, thousands of times in the Troubles — in which security force members with information on republicans took the law into their own hands.

This is particularly so given that the community at large, let alone the people on the ground, saw the extent to which some of the most determined and skilled IRA terrorists outwitted the authorities and ran rings round the criminal justice system’s need to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

The community at large was very annoyed about it, let alone the security force members who saw it up close, who knew the people who were getting away with murder, and who knew that the murderers would particularly target them, as security force members.

We know from societies all round the world, through history, that vigilantism is at risk of appearing if there is a perception that the authorities will not secure justice against the worst wrongdoers.

The big story about the British state and the Troubles is how restrained it was, despite many lapses, the most notable and shameful of which was on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Again, this obvious truth is immediately distorted when I express it, and is daily being thrown back in my face.

Republicans will cite, or indeed get a grieving relative of a victim of the British Army to cite, my comment about this security force restraint, as if an instance in which a thuggish soldier was trigger happy – and there were clearly some such instances – disproves my overall point about the record of the 300,000+ people who passed through Northern Ireland on duty during Operation Banner.

Has there ever been a situation like it in human history, in which 2,100 killings by an insurgent group (republican paramilitaries) were met with a much lower number of killings in response by a much more powerful force?

A very small number of killings by the official force, many of them in public order situations in the chaotic early 1970s.

Then a much larger number by loyalist groups, the striking feature of which is their attempt to strike at the community from which they believed the republican violence stemmed, rather than the more difficult task of striking at the leaders and perpetrators of that violence.

Has there previously been a situation in which the determination of an insurgent group to bomb and shoot its way to the destruction of the lawful authority has been met with an almost equal determination of that lawful authority, over many years, to adhere to the rule of law?

A determination such that the state accepted that a certain number of known and fanatical mass murderers would enjoy freedom of movement and freedom of association despite their flagrant guilt, because the state accepted that that guilt could not be proven in court, and that it would not accept alternative methods such as internment (after 1975) or by illegally killing them.

And again, when I make this point, republicans immediately distort it. They say that I am praising the state for not killing people illegally, for doing what the state forces are supposed to do and adhering to the rule of law.

No, no, that is not what I am doing.

It is they, by making the claim of brutality, who bring the issue up. It is we who are then obliged — obliged — to defend the state against these claims because of the distortions and gross exaggerations of their record.

Both the two scenarios that I envisaged at the top of this address, which might bring some small balance to the direction of travel on legacy — the arrest and charge of an IRA leader or a sceptical BBC examination of collusion — could happen in the morning, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised by events, but none of us have come to think such developments are likely.

There is now an almost settled narrative of the Troubles: IRA violence versus collusion, the latter being a British state and loyalists who operated in concert — a joint enterprise that is no less than you would expect in a statelet that was sectarian to its foundations.

That this narrative has been given so much weight by the British state itself, both in terms of funding but also in the way that it has been only lightly challenged by London — a reticence rooted in British decency and politeness in the face of embittered propagandists, who are backed in their distortions by fools — is one of the biggest scandals since World War Two.

I have not a moment’s hesitation in saying this. The way in which the British state has turned in on itself over the story of the Troubles is seemingly a display of ostentatious fair play – ‘look, look, how fair we are!’ – taken to a level that tips into madness.

It is an immense scandal.

I say that because the Troubles itself was, obviously, one of the largest and longest running challenges that the UK faced since 1945.

On the whole it is clear that after a confused and improvised response to an emergency, the state largely, particularly after 1973 or 1974, acquitted itself and saw off the determined republican violence without overly antagonising the nationalist community or the population in the Republic of Ireland.

It knew, after the disasters of Bloody Sunday and the botched first internment, that if it was ruthless in its response to the IRA it would radicalise the entire nationalist community, and also the Republic, and that we would have entered a disastrous period of perpetual war.

The violence fizzled out over time until its perpetrators no longer had the stomach for it and were brought into the democratic system.

No sensible person would ever attribute the blame for the origins or the entirety of the Troubles to any one side of the tribal divide or one group or faction. Of course the blame and blunders were spread all around.

And yet the course of the Troubles quickly became apparent.

There is an important civil action that has been instigated against the killers of the three Scottish soldiers in the honey trap murders of March 1971, and which the News Letter is backing.

Those calculated murders, which caused revulsion across Britain and Ireland, were one of the most significant turning points, one of the key moments in the breach between soldiers and the nationalist community that they had arrived in part to protect.

There had only been 58 Troubles deaths prior to the honey trap murders. Republicans cannot justify those three murders on British oppression such as internment, which did not happen until that summer, or on Bloody Sunday, which did not happen until the following January.

While much of the Troubles was chaos, this was one of the many republican moments of deep calculation, of the instilling of pure terror. It was possible in large part because soldiers were still then relaxed about their security.

So what do we see with the IRA?

Alongside this calculated targeting of soldiers, a bombing strategy to cause terror, centred initially on Belfast.

Consider the magnificent St George’s Church on High Street, one of the finest buildings on this island, damaged nine times in 1972 alone.

This, of course, is of no consequence in comparison to the appalling crimes of the Abercorn and Bloody Friday bombings. And remember not just the deaths, but the maimings, the many loses of limbs and eyes at the Abercorn, the grievous nature of that crime as people chatted and had coffee on a Saturday, leading to 130 injured victims.

I was talking with colleagues last year and got confused between IRA bombs at the two newspapers where I have spent almost 20 years working, the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter, so I checked what happened where: in the News Letter attack seven people were slaughtered in 1972 (none staff, but the dead included people who were trying to get away from the scene, such as a man, 65), at the 1976 Bel Tel bombing only one died (an employee).

Through the 1970s the IRA killed members of the security forces, while continuing to bomb. Note how when it made ‘mistakes’ at La Mon for example or Enniskillen in the 1980s it was mostly or exclusively (depending on which atrocity we cite) Protestant civilians who died.

In the 1980s, to step up the sense of terror, politicians were murdered, including Edgar Graham and Robert Bradford, as the INLA had murdered Airey Neave, to terrorise the prime minister, then trying to blow up the government at Brighton.

With regard to the heinous murder of Edgar Graham, which achieved so much of its goal of spooking a generation of unionists away from politics, it is very good to see Anne Graham here today.

The bombings on the mainland in the 1980s were calculated: from Hyde Park to Harrods to Deal to Brighton.

In the 1990s they became all the more so: huge economic bombs, on the calculation that vast sums of money might change minds where all the bloodshed had not done. In Northern Ireland too: the heart blown out of prosperous, mainly unionist towns such as Bangor and Coleraine.

Meanwhile, in NI the fact that the security forces had become so good at protecting themselves pushed the terror in another direction. Those who were working with or supplying the armed forces were to be murdered: Patsy Gillespie, Teebane.

Don’t forget the targeting of civil servants, including blowing up Sir Ken Bloomfield and family in their Crawfordsburn home using devices that damaged neighbouring properties (but, mercifully, not injuring them).

And what happened through the 1980s and 1990s? 
The people who lived through the IRA, and the people on behalf of whom it purported to be fighting, nationalists in Northern Ireland, and the society the IRA wanted us by violence to join, the Republic, repudiated Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

Solidly so in the nationalist community, around two-thirds of Catholics voting for other parties. Overwhelmingly so in the Republic, where the Sinn Fein vote was between 1% and 4%.

The British response of restraint and normalisation saw off the calculated bombers and sectarian psychopaths.

And now, in a response that is a mixture of moral collapse and near insanity, it is handing the IRA the narrative. As one man in a position of authority put it to me, even some senior people in the security forces are guiding republicans by the hand to where they want to go on legacy.

I could go on and on but will finish on two points:

One, the final proof of failure, of abject surrender on legacy, is the fact that republicans are so confident that the coming legacy structures will be good for them, agreed at Stormont House in 2014, that they not only made legacy inquests a non negotiable demand for the return of Stormont, but the DUP and London were clearly in the recent stalemate about to implement that demand.

Neil Faris’s analysis, for example, that the Article Two obligation can be met without separate inquests, cast aside.

It was a News Letter analysis that found that around 40 of the 92 mooted legacy inquests will be into the deaths of terrorists. The inquests might cost £1 million each.

This, among other injustices, will lead to the utterly unpardonable situation in which the killings of the Loughgall murder gang will get a greater level of scrutiny than most of their 50+ victims, isolated border Protestants slaughtered by serial killers well known to the state but too accomplished in their murderous abilities to be convicted to the criminal standard.

And consider this chilling fact about the Historical Investigations Unit, HIU, the only body that might bring some balance to the legacy process and might turn the spotlight on the terrorists who did almost all of the illegal killing: we are in the extraordinary situation that London has been scrambling to ensure that the HIU will in fact investigate things in a proportionate manner, and not itself turn in on the state that is easier to pursue because it has records, just as republicans want.

Two, to people who would say what would you do differently, then I would say, if we do not take the approach suggested by Austen Morgan, of leaving it to the historians, then it must be made clear to the IRA that if they rake over the past it will be an uncomfortable process for them.

ie London could quite simply have ordered a public inquiry into the IRA: time limited, costing say £100m, half the price of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and a tiny fraction of it in per death costs.

It would be much less unwieldy that the current sex inquiry, it would take advantage of security force and state experts who are still alive to get to the bottom of who it was who ran this organisation and carried out its worst atrocities and how we can learn from the experience to improve our response to a similar conspiracy in future.

Or, more simply, it could fund civil cases, as belatedly it has done in the Hyde Park bombings, as it has not done in Birmingham, as it has not done in the soldier honey trap trio case, but as it is doing in republican legal cases in NI.

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

Ben Lowry in 2016: The growing myth of loyalist collusion