Continuing the discussion that was begun with Tommy McKearney’s piece, our second contribution comes from Maurice Punch. Professor Punch has lectured on criminology at both LSE and King’s College London and is the author of State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles: Counter Insurgency, Government Deviance and Northern Ireland (Pluto, 2012).
Here’s what he had to say:
A grim legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is some 1500 unsolved deaths by violence. That`s a lot of nasty secrets and of people in the Province and elsewhere leading ordinary lives who were once involved in violence. And there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TCR) offering openness and immunity as in South Africa – although many para-military activists were granted amnesty following the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – while there is no statute of limitations. One of the most gruesome and callous acts among the 3600 fatalities was the abduction and murder of Mrs. McConville.
Understandably there is a desire among her relatives and others for certainty and closure regarding this and other deaths. There are “historical cases” units within the PSNI and Police Ombudsmans` Office endeavouring to resolve cases. But this work is often not only frustrating and often fruitless – witnesses and participants have passed on, others aren`t talking and some police investigations were not conducted thoroughly for ostensibly “security” reasons – but it`s also time consuming and expensive. But the slow pace has lately become a major issue and there`s a widespread desire for cases to be resolved and the guilty to be brought to justice with institutional pressure on the PSNI to produce results.
The question then becomes if this is a rational, balanced process or if there are covert criteria driving investigations such as settling old scores. The PSNI and judicial authorities will obviously deny this vehemently. But the forerunner of the PSNI, the RUC, suffered greatly at the hands of nationalist, republican insurgency with some 300 fatalities and many officers injured and maimed. When I visited the RUC in 1999, with the Patten Report proposing the disbandment of the RUC and the formation of the PSNI, there was a ubiquitous poster on the walls of people`s offices depicting their 300 fallen RUC comrades. It is conceivable that in setting priorities there is an element of selection and particularly regarding high profile figures associated with high profile cases, such as Gerry Adams and the McConville case.
An important factor is that the nationalist movement was deeply split in warring factions with incessant power and personality struggles. For obvious reasons much was not exposed because of internal disciplinary measures and harsh treatment for those who talked. Since the GFA, however, there has been more willingness to talk and in that process a number of individuals have been named for their involvement in, or knowledge of, violent incidents. One particular and seemingly authentic source has been the series of interviews held with former activists from both sides as part of the Boston College (USA) oral history project of the Troubles.
The interviews were given on the understanding that they would not be released until after the death of the respondent and would be kept confidential by the College. But then there was the publication of two interviews following the deaths of Brendan Hughes (nationalist, IRA) and David Ervine (loyalist, UVF). Hughes roundly accuses Adams of involvement in, or knowledge of, diverse violent incidents on the grounds that “he must have known” or “must have ordered it”. This is, of course, not evidence and may well simply be a leading activist who was bitter about the armed struggle not being pursued to fulfil its original aims and about the “politicians” within the republican movement, such as Adams, bargaining for a compromise. This sort of accusation has long been part of the factionalism within the IRA and, indeed, many other insurgent movements.
But the PSNI reacted to the Hughes` interview by taking legal action. through the UK`s mutual legal assistance treaty with the US, against Boston College for the release of some 80 tapes of interviews with seven IRA activists, some of whom are still alive. The PSNI was clearly hoping for statements that might lead to the clearance of historical cases and possibly to get incriminating information against Adams in particular. He has been involved in political life in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic for some time: but he has always denied a role within the IRA and involvement in violent incidents. Initially an American court ordered the College to release all the tapes but after litigation only a handful were released including that of Hughes.
The key question becomes, is there some form of selection and targeting within the PSNI to pursue Adam`s and on what new information is it based? It`s strange that the former IRA activist who was also interviewed for the project, the late Delours Price, had several times publicly admitted involvement in the abduction of Mrs. McConville yet she has never been questioned by the police. This has, furthermore, to be placed alongside the possible political repercussions in a society still rent by sectarianism but which has reached a state of uneasy equilibrium. Indeed, reform of policing was central to the GFA and the subsequent negotiations about forming an administration for the Province. And the new PSNI was formed on a paradigm of human rights and impartiality. But everything remains political in Northern Ireland and this will doubtless be seen by nationalists as being highly selective and politically motivated – and designed to embarrass one specific individual – and it could have a serious destabilizing impact if Adams is prosecuted and convicted.
The authorities would doubtless reply that this a “damned if you do and damned if you don`t” predicament: and that if they have serious grounds for a criminal prosecution then they are obliged to act irrespective of the consequences. Yet it is the case that not only were many convicted activists, as mentioned, released early from their prison sentences but also that others who were on the run were promised immunity from prosecution as part of the peace process (this has emerged only recently). There could be a general amnesty to resolve the matter and to avoid a resurgence of turbulence but that conflicts with notions of natural justice while there is no legal provision for limitations to prosecutions for such offences. And it would create a dangerous precedent. We have, then, to await further developments in this case for more clarity but until then it will remain a matter of dispute and controversy with possibly serious consequences.
The murder of Mrs. McConville was truly awful: and the circumstances make for grim reading and expose the grave failings of the nationalist movement regarding rights and justice. But it is part of a deeper and murky pool of contentious cases which remain to bedevil the Province following a “dirty war” about which much has not been revealed. One could argue that the rule of law should prevail but the rule of law was little in evidence since the founding of the Northern Ireland administration after Partition in 1921 while policing and justice during the Troubles were clearly aimed at the nationalist (mainly Catholic) community. Given that background any single case that leads to a suspect can be seen as biased and opportunistic: but especially if it is aimed at a nationalist for seems to convey yet again that less attention had been paid to serious cases involving loyalist activists. Plainly any case will require the highest measure of probity and transparency from the PSNI to retain trust in its impartiality.
Some would say that Britain`s historical evasiveness around the rule of law – and the government`s current carping about human rights – is not reassuring. So it will be interesting to see how the government would justify any intervention to prevent a prosecution as a measure of expediency to keep the nationalists on board in the power sharing process. Expediency may also play a role in Northern Ireland politics now that the once warring parties have tasted power: there may be strong nationalist protests but without abandoning the administration. But how will the divided communities react if the loyalists feel that justice has not been done or the nationalists are convinced that police and justice are reacting in the old fashioned way with discrimination against one of their own? Both may be wrong but feelings are facts and feelings can run very high in the Province.
There is, then, much at stake and not just in the Province. For part of that legacy of unsolved murders is those killings of unarmed nationalist activists under highly dubious circumstances by members of the security forces, some of whom have openly spoken about their illicit methods. But unlike IRA insurgents those concerned were the formal agents of a democratic state espousing the rule of law and due process. The question will inevitably be raised as to how determinedly those cases are being pursued when they are likely to expose collusion, not only within the security forces but also with loyalist activists. And the audit trail might reach to high levels of the security and political establishment involved in the Troubles with serious repercussions in present day Whitehall.