There have been a number of reports from the Policing Ombudsman into events from decades ago and in virtually all of them there is no attempt to establish the overall context of what was happening in Northern Ireland society at the time in an effort to provide a greater understanding of the events being investigated.
Where wrongdoing occurred it is right that it be uncovered, but this should be carried out against the backdrop of the horrendous nature of the violence that was all prevailing at the time. The case of the report on the four Londonderry men who had been arrested and charged with the murder of a soldier, Lt. Stephen Kirby in February 1979 is a classic example.
The four left Northern Ireland at the time on bail and were subsequently acquitted some nineteen years later. The ombudsman’s report declared the four men were subjected to a “coercive and oppressive atmosphere”.
It did not take account of the prevailing atmosphere of the times other than a fleeting reference to “During January and February 1979, there were also a number of punishment shootings in the city”, but this reference was only made as some of the men were also facing charges in relation to those events.
The facts of the period show that the IRA issued a statement warning that it was preparing for a so called ‘long war’ as they carried out more than 50 bomb attacks across NI in mid November 1978 and then fire-bomb attacks in 14 towns and villages at the end of the same month.
Just before Christmas 1978 three soldiers were shot dead while on foot patrol in Crossmaglen by the IRA. Lt. Stephen Kirby was then murdered by a sniper in Londonderry on February 14 1979.
The public record goes on to show that just weeks after his killing the IRA assassinated Richard Sykes, the UK ambassador to the Netherlands, along with his valet, Karel Straub, in the Netherlands, then Airey Neave MP was butchered in an under car bomb explosion as he left the House of Commons at the end of March 1979.
The reason these events of the time are important now is that it tells a more accurate picture of what was happening at that time.
Investigations into events like this cannot and must not be carried out and announced in a totally different era 40 years later without explanation, as this allows those who carried out the killing spree to believe that they can indeed re write history.
If it is right to elaborate on how four men came to be charged with a murder they did not commit, and it is, then it is equally right to elaborate on what was going on at the time, one of the differences is that the four innocent men have lived to see a form of justice done, the family of equally innocent Lt. Kirby did not.
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