Last November’s deal on resuscitating Northern Ireland’s fractious cross-community Executive may have kept the show on the road, but there was a singular omission. Amid deals on welfare reform and reassurances about the permanent retirement of the Provisional IRA, there was little progress on what is euphemistically called “dealing with the past”.
The legacy of ‘the Troubles’ remains, unsurprisingly, a sore point. Nearly 3,600 people were killed during the period and countless more were maimed, but there is little common ground about how and what is commemorated, remembered or conveniently forgotten. And, crucially, who is brought to book, either legally, or just in moral terms for the deaths and atrocities that occurred.
Of course, no-one will publicly disown the idea of some sort of truth and reconciliation process, but neither unionists nor republicans really want the past dredging up. Everyone has something to answer for. But the real blocker on a deal in establishing some sort of process is the British government itself.
From the early 1970s and the imposition of direct rule from Whitehall, successive ministers have sanctioned things that, forty years on, are rather embarrassing to be associated with. Since the peace process began, we are used to our Prime Ministers playing the part of honest broker, rather than participant in the conflict, but this is a relatively new role.
Just take a recent example. State papers from 1985 released last week reveal that Margaret Thatcher suggested to her Irish counterpart, Garret Fitzgerald, that Dundalk could be bombed to stymie republicans from fleeing across the border.
Bizarre in the extreme, but of a piece with the securocrat mentality that believed a military solution was possible against the Provisional IRA. Indeed, if you think Guantanamo Bay has been an affront to legal due process, try internment without trial, introduced in Northern Ireland in 1971 with hundreds arrested and jailed without charge. Think Abu Ghraib was appalling? Clearly you have never heard of Castlereagh detention centre and the litany of human rights abuses carried out behind its walls by agents of the British state.
Then there’s the ‘hooded men’ case, where, in 1971, 14 innocent Catholics were rounded up and subjected to ‘deep interrogation’ techniques which included hooding, being forced into stress positions for long periods, exposed to white noise, deprived of sleep as well as having food and water withheld. In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights judged their treatment was inhuman and degrading, but stopped short of calling the ‘five techniques’ torture. (The Bush administration later used that ruling as the legal basis for its own interrogation programme in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Think shoot-to-kill is rough justice when applied to Jihadist terrorist with guns? But it was used, not just against the IRA, but the civilian Catholic population in the early 1970s as the army’s Military Reaction Force ran amok. These were plain-clothed soldiers operating, in the estimation of one of their number, as a ‘death squad’ shooting at indiscriminate targets from cars in drive-by killings. Conveniently, records of their activities have since been destroyed.
Then there’s the Ballymurphy Ten, civilians gunned down by the British army a few weeks before the better known Bloody Sunday atrocity occurred. A Catholic priest tending to a wounded man and a mother of eight were among those shot dead. Like Bloody Sunday (when 14 civil rights marchers were killed), soldiers from the Parachute regiment were responsible.
Then there’s the really murky stuff.
The so-called ‘dirty war’ counter-insurgency effort handled by the anodyne-sounding Force Research Unit which ran agents and targeted republicans for assassination, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Figures like Brian Nelson, who, while working as a British agent, was a high-ranking member of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association and was implicated in 26 murders, including one of the most notorious, that of Catholic solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989.
Or Freddie Scappaticci – ‘Agent Stakeknife’ – alleged to be the highest-ranking British agent in the Provisional IRA, responsible for their internal security unit, which interrogated, tortured and killed informers, (including other British assets). It is suggested Scappaticci is responsible for fifty murders.
These are just some of the ‘nown knowns in terms of what we definitely know was sanctioned by successive British governments against – let us not forget – their own people within the borders of the British state. These events are little understood on this side of the Irish Sea, but if they had taken place on the streets of London would we be so sanguine? Furthermore, it begs the question: if this is what we know happened, how bad are the known unknowns? Would some sort of truth process reveal that British agents inside the IRA deliberately targeted civilians in some of their infamous bombings to discredit republican paramilitaries?
It’s unlikely we will be given the chance to find out. There is little appetite for unearthing the past from any of the Northern Ireland parties, but there is none, whatsoever, from Whitehall. There is little to no prospect of an international body hearing witnesses state baldly what they did during the three decades of bloody internecine conflict. We will continue to hear talk of ‘dealing with the past’ but there will be no ‘Oprah-fication’ of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
The British government simply has too much to lose.