Valid objections to a history of the British government’s role in the Troubles should not stand in the way of accountability

Solemn commemorations have just been  held on the 50th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan no warning  bombings which claimed the lives of 34 people  and injured hundreds more. These atrocities were committed by loyalists  in the middle of the UWC  strike in the North which within weeks had overthrown  new  British -Irish structures and the recently formed power sharing Executive.  At the time  the Dublin coalition government which had negotiated the Sunningdale deal the previous  November was strangely passive about  follow up, perhaps reluctant  to disturb the fragile new relations  with the UK  and deeply worried about an IRA upsurge in reply.

Years later in  2003, the Barron report made severe criticisms which today boggle the mind.

..the loyalist groups who carried out the bombings in Dublin were capable of doing so without help from any section of the security forces in Northern Ireland, though this does not rule out the involvement of individual RUC, UDR or British Army members. The Monaghan bombing in particular bears all the hallmarks of a standard loyalist operation and required no assistance.

But..

the Garda investigation failed to make full use of the information it obtained. Certain lines of inquiry that could have been made pursued further in this jurisdiction were not pursued. There were other matters, including the questioning of suspects, in which the assistance of the RUC should have been requested, but was not.

A number of those suspected for the bombings were reliably said to have had relationships with British Intelligence and / or RUC Special Branch officers.

It is reasonable to assume that exchanges of information took place.

It is therefore possible that the assistance provided to the Garda investigation team by the security forces in Northern Ireland was affected by a reluctance to compromise those relationships, in the interests of securing further information in the future. But any such conclusion would require very cogent evidence.

However, it can be said that the Government of the day showed little interest in the bombings. When information was given to them suggesting that the British authorities had intelligence naming the bombers, this was not followed up. Any follow-up was limited to complaints by the Minister for Foreign Affairs that those involved had been released from internment.

Today, the demand for answers to legacy questions has become more  insistent. But while the climate has changed, are governments any less evasive and keener to find answers? The answer to that is far from clear. The Irish President is clear about what he wants to see happen.

At the Monaghan commemoration President Higgins declared  that justice for victims and their families  must include a “clear account of the context, the information shared and the knowledge as to preparations for what happened to and caused the death and injuries” during the bombs. He noted that earlier this week the Dáil called for the fourth time for all documents held by the British government in relation to what happened to be released.

The PSNI  for its part is eager  to provide answers from the series of investigations stemming from Operation Kenova.

Sir Iain Livingstone the  retired Police Scotland chief  now leading the inquiry Operation Denton has said he has no doubt there was collusion between the gang and the British security services.

“What we are going to do – and we are going to do it with rigour, and we’re going to do it with complete transparency – is define the character, the nature and the extent of that collusion,” he said.

“It’s well established that people who worked for the State – police officers, members of the UDR – had previously been involved in some of these despicable, sectarian attacks that were carried out primarily by loyalist paramilitaries.”

“Whether there were individuals within that who were also agents and in terms of informants – that’s something that our review will consider, we’ll make an assessment around that, and we will report on that because it’s a matter of legitimate public interest.”

This approach by policing championed by the present Chief Constable Jon Boucher appears to put the PSNI at loggerheads with the UK government. Their approach to disclosure is rhetorically enthusiastic but in practice a  lot more cagey, according the tradition of  protecting “national security”  and the current  practice of “neither confirm nor deny”. ( NCND)

If ever there was an example of the need for comprehensive disclosure by both  governments its surely lies with the  Dublin and Monaghan bombings. So far the greater spotlight has been on the British. They did themselves no favours by announcing  their plan for legacy historical investigations  just when the much criticised Legacy Act came into operation. The UKG is facing similar criticisms including downright rejection by some senior Belfast based  historians . Another key critic is Brian Feeney  who behind his usual role as a ranter against all things UK government in the Irish News,  is a pretty fair historian of republicanism.

Any historians who go near this tainted process are more to be pitied than laughed at. Do they really believe the British government will show them all the material, when some Anglo-Irish material from the War of Independence time is still closed and some from the present Troubles closed until 2060? Do they believe the British haven’t destroyed stacks of files, just as they did from other colonial wars? They even hid the existence of a vast secret repository with 240,000 files at Hanslope Park near Northampton until 2011.

Beyond that , Feeney is careful not to attack the historians who have accepted the brief  The  five  person team headed by  Lord Paul Bew have clarified both their role and their approach

As members of the expert advisory panel appointed to support this research, we acknowledge the deep anger and grief caused by the violence and divisions of the past. It has long been recognised that dealing with Northern Ireland’s past demands a wide range of initiatives. Here we clarify what is and what is not within the scope of this project.

The first thing to note is that this project is focussed specifically on British government policy towards Northern Ireland during the conflict and the peace process. It is neither an inquiry into breaches of human rights – a properly legal and judicial task – nor a full history of the conflict, which would need to draw on a much wider range of sources and disciplinary perspectives.

Additionally, this project is not established via the Legacy Act, which includes provision for a range of other academic research initiatives, including an oral history strand, an academic report arising from the findings and workings of the Independent Commission for Information Recovery and Reconciliation, and a major funding call via the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to support new research exploring various aspects of the conflict. This project, although separate and limited, is nonetheless historically very significant.

One of them, Ian McBride Roy Foster’s  successor as Prof of Irish History  at Oxford adds that historians are well used to dealing with limited data and all too willing to highlight gaps in the evidence.

All the same, and with due respect to those taking part, this project is flawed in concept and communication.  First is the limited brief of the UK government’s role in the Troubles. Northern Ireland affairs are intrinsic to Irish history. British policy is only a limited part of the story. The narrowness of the brief was bound to attract suspicion of whitewash that can only be dispelled by results. While the tradition of Irish history writing can be relied on to produce as  comprehensive and forensic account of the subject as possible, a  wider multidisciplinary approach planned by a range of British, Irish and international academics  would have provided grounds for greater public confidence beyond the cynics and the irreconcilable partisans. It is not too late to adopt it.  The second flaw is  if anything more crucial . It lies in the absence  of UKG assurances that this is not a once only  exercise  to access key state records.

At the same time, chronic distrust can pass up a vital chance to achieve accountability. For this history project as well as for the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Recovery  ( ICRIR)   there are bound to limitations on the public disclosure of who did what to whom. Redactions will be made and perhaps even undertakings required not to reveal details harmful to the living,

But any history  project which fails to reveal “ who pulled to strings more than who pulled the trigger”  plus the dodges of deniability and gaps in the chain  of authority won’t  be worth the paper it’s  printed on. Amnesties in exchange  for candour might be required. It would be an encourging sign if they were. Progress reports will be essential.  The output will face the sternest of peer reviews, not only in the academy but the public square . And it should be only the beginning of something far bigger.

 

 


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