The tensions between nationalists / Catholics and loyalists / Protestants remain largely unresolved in Northern Ireland and occasionally a violent incident or a turbulent public order situation reminds us that this country has not found closure from the thirty years of the Troubles. This is difficult in a society with well over 1000 unsolved murders and when graphic evidence does emerge around high-profile killings in the past with state involvement. This is the case with the Finucane murder and the de Silva report on it published yesterday.
In essence, this is what I tackled in my book – to what extent was the state involved in a number of controversial killings? Probably we will never know because archives are embargoed, documents have disappeared, memories have faded and participants have died. But my suspicion is that leading politicians were too wily to give direct, traceable “orders” and rather made their wishes known and then granted practitioners in the field considerable autonomy to seek solutions. And they and those practitioners perceived themselves to be a state of war. But as this was not formally a “war” the military could not claim immunity under international law for killing.
What effectively emerged in Northern Ireland was those who acted on behalf of the state and who went beyond the boundaries of the law could expect an implicit form of immunity. It may never prove possible to uncover deliberate intention and a full blown conspiracy behind this and the reality may have been episodic, incident driven and personality driven. But the evidence is clear.
I traced a series of incidents involving counter-insurgency units of the RUC, Army and Intelligence Services geared to tackling suspected nationalist activists or their sympathisers. The early pattern with the RUC and Army units, including the SAS, was to lead suspects into an ambush and when they touched firearms and/or explosives to confront them and when “endangered” open fire. But on many occasions it would appear that the danger was concocted, no warning was given and the suspects were riddled with bullets. On other occasions the suspects were unarmed and no shots were fired at the security forces. The later pattern was that security forces arranged shootings of nationalist suspects by loyalist paramilitaries and Finucane was one of them.
Under normal circumstances such shootings and incidents would have been investigated, the scene inspected, witnesses heard, documents seized and evidence assembled leading to a decision whether or not a prosecution would be mounted. But often these procedures were not followed, investigations were thwarted – including those from outside (as by Stalker), no prosecutions followed and if there ever were sanctions they were mild. The overwhelming evidence is these special units were indelibly biased against nationalist activists and suspects, almost never examined loyalist violence but usually got away with bending or breaking the law.
It is not difficult to see why. These murky deeds would lead to the involvement of the state through its agents in the security services in crimes and illegal killings. Many of these incidents were clouded by practices that almost guaranteed immunity. Occasionally we are allowed a deeper and more profound analysis of what happened. After some forty years there was the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday and now this report on the shooting of a lawyer who had mostly nationalist clients but who had no involvement whatsoever in insurgency. This innocent man should have been warned and protected; instead agents of the state in counter-insurgency units provided loyalist paramilitaries with information that lead to his death in appalling circumstances. And this within the UK, an ostensibly mature, democratic state.
This new report details this collusion at length. But the bigger picture still needs to be told. How high and extensive was state involvement in the bag of dirty tricks employed in Northern Ireland? Isn’t one way to achieve this a solid and convincing Truth and Reconciliation Committee as in South Africa? Instead of piecemeal and painstakingly long inquiries shouldn’t there be a major effort to seek a genuine peace in Northern Ireland? I can imagine that the British government fears what might be revealed. But somehow politicians have to find the strength to bring reconciliation and closure to the people of Northern Ireland who have to endure so much misery and so many lies.
Amstelveen, Netherlands, 13-12-12.