Ben Lowry: The growing myth of loyalist collusion

The 1994 Loughinisland atrocity was one of a select group of particularly evil, calculated massacres of civilians during the Troubles.

Wednesday, 15th June 2016, 11:04 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 8:37 pm
Dr Michael Maguire has adopted Judge Smithwicks broadest sense of collusion. Picture By: Arthur Allison Pacemaker Press

The dead men had been watching a World Cup football game in the Heights Bar.

That no-one was ever held accountable for that heinous crime is one of the many failures of the justice system during the Troubles.

As with all Troubles murders in which no perpetrator was held to account, it is a case that is richly deserving of official scrutiny.

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The scene of the 1994 UVF attack, which was a heinous sectarian massacre

On page one of the Executive Summary of the (latest) Police Ombudsman’s report into the RUC handling of Loughinisland, three principal conclusions are listed.

The first two are that the police did not conduct an effective investigation into the UVF murders and that the police did not discharge duties under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (to protect life).

The third conclusion is: “That there was collusion between the RUC and those responsible for the murders.”

Is that not one of the most devastating conclusions against a western police force since the World War II?

The scene of the 1994 UVF attack, which was a heinous sectarian massacre

Try to think of a similar incident in a developed nation (as opposed to a developing or third world one) in which police were complicit in a mass murderous attack on civilians engaged in something as innocent and joyful as watching a sports event.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary were in cahoots with some of the most despicable paramilitary murderers.

Or were they?

That is what anyone with an ordinary understanding of the English language could deduce from that conclusion. Here it is again: “... collusion between RUC and those responsible for the murders.”

It is the headline conclusion that has been broadcast across Northern Ireland and beyond after this report.

Most people do not read details, they glean a basic impression. An ordinary person, without a knowledge of the disputed definition of the term collusion (as used with regard to legacy issues), would assume the RUC planned or assisted the massacre. But this is not what happened.

You only need to turn to page four of the report’s Executive Summary. The Ombudsman “specifically considered the issue of whether the attack ... could have been prevented”.

The same paragraph in the Executive Summary says that the report did not find any evidence that there was specific intelligence about an intended attack on the bar.

So not only were the RUC not involved in the massacre, they did not even know it was going to happen.

How can you be complicit in a massacre of which you are unaware? The answer to that also comes early in the Ombudsman’s report.

Not only does collusion not mean commission of an act, it does not even need to involve complicity.

On page six of the Executive Summary, Michael Maguire explains his interpretation of the word collusion. Individual examples of neglect or incompetence are not collusion, he believes. Dr Maguire adopts Judge Smithwick’s definition: “ ... the issue of collusion will be examined in the broadest sense of the word ...”

If that definition is used then there must be a large range in how serious an act of collusion is. Here is my suggested collusion hierarchy:

• Most serious security forces plan or carry out or instigate murder

• Next most serious security forces know about an impending murder by another group and do not stop it

• Next most serious security forces learn after the event who carried out a murder and do not act

• Next most serious security forces do not know murder culprit but make no meaningful effort to find out

The Loughinisland report seems to place some police in the third or fourth category.

A wide definition of collusion would encompass acts that are not criminal, beneath even that last category. But that then moves so far beyond collusion, as any average person would think of it, the term is not apt.

Even a higher notch of collusion – an officer not making a serious effort to find a murderer –while deserving of dismissal, censure and investigation is not what people deduce from the phrase “collusion between police and murderers”.

How people interpret things is relevant. Republicans want us to believe that the state engaged in wholesale murder, so we must be careful about language that legitimises that narrative.

That distorted representation of collusion is a myth – that the British state widely engaged in the worst collusion, such as commission of murder or letting it go ahead.

There were clearly instances of such outrageous collusion. I have long wondered about the period beginning around the time of Pat Finucane’s awful murder, at his family dinner table, in 1989 and including murders such as that of Eddie Fullerton in Donegal in 1991.

A striking aspect of those murders was how organised they were, in comparison to the typical loyalist method of killing random Catholics (as at Loughinisland). We know from the list of the Troubles dead that loyalist intelligence was bad, which suggests that the worst cases of collusion were few in number.

It is surprising that they were so, given that tens of thousands of people served in the security forces, and inevitably some were hardcore loyalists. Some individuals or groups did carry out vile sectarian murders. But generally their failure to gain intelligence suggests that the organisations in which they served were disciplined and well run, although anyone who says so is seen as naive.

It has long been apparent that use of informers was the messiest aspect of the ‘dirty war’. Informers were at the heart of bringing the Troubles to a close, as shown by Jeffrey Donaldson’s remarks that we publish today.

The security forces were operating in the dark in their handling of these crucial sources of intelligence.

No doubt some handlers mis-used their power and it would not be a surprise to learn that there were a handful of occasions in which a handler knew that a killing was about to take place but did not stop it – perhaps, for example, because a target was also seen as a terrorist.

There might be ethical arguments that letting the odd attack proceed would allow a key informer to retain credibility in an organisation and would ultimately save more lives, but no western government today would endorse such an interpretation.

Failure to stop a known and impending murder is obviously criminal complicity in murder and falls into the suggested second category of seriousness above.

But as I have written before, republican leaders – to a man – know they would have been killed long ago if the state was anything like as ruthless as they pretend.

Not only were they not killed, but the men underneath them were not killed, nor the men underneath them, except in a few incidents such as 1987 Loughgall.

The state tracked these men, arrested them when they had grounds, and often they were freed by Diplock judges who knew them to be guilty but also knew that proof did not meet the criminal standard. Or at times if an initial judge did think evidence met the standard, an appeal court overturned it.

Many civilians died because terrorists were treated with such fairness by all branches of the state. Britain stuck to the rule of law, but normal legal systems struggle to stop determined killers and the UK did not even intern the most fanatical.

That truth is being inverted. Coming legacy inquests will mean years of findings of state failure.

Republicans must be barely able to believe their luck – first allowed to wage a terror campaign with minimal risk of death, then the very state they attacked, and that responded with such restraint, funds probes into its own failures, and assists the notion that the terror was justified.

Imagine if Britain tried to redress the balance on behalf of victims of terror, including the relatives of the 2,100 people murdered by the republican killing machine.

It might mean dragging the worst past offenders out of their beds,even if they are MLAs, for interviews.

It might mean accepting that even is lavish funding if found there is little prospect of justice for victims of terrorists, who were accomplished in evading detection, and instead providing finance for civil actions, so the guilty can be named and found liable by the sort of legal standard of proof on which the state’s reputation is being hanged.

These would be reasonable, but radical, responses to the scandal that is unfolding around legacy issues.

A simpler way to begin rebalancing the approach to the past would be to refine the sweeping meaning of collusion.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor