Enemies of the state
BY LAURA FRIEL
Unfinished Business, State Killings and the Quest for Truth
By Bill Rolston
Beyond the Pale Publications
``We as the victims of state violence were ignored by the state
from the day and hour it happened. We became victims of the state
and... when you become a victim of the state, you become an enemy
of the state and you are treated in that way whether or not you
wanted to be.''
These words, quoted in Bill Rolston's latest book, ``Unfinished
Business, State Killings and the Quest for Truth'', are the words
of Jim McCabe. Jim's wife, Nora, was fatally injured by a plastic
bullet fired at close range into the back of her head by an RUC
officer in July 1981.
Nora McCabe was one of 17 people killed in the North of Ireland
by plastic and rubber bullets fired by British soldiers or the
RUC. Tens of hundreds of people have been injured by plastic
bullets, many seriously and some resulting in permanent
A young mother of three children, Nora was walking from her in
Linden Street to a local shop on the Falls Road shortly before
8am. As two RUC Land Rovers drew level with the corner of Linden
Street, one plastic bullet was fired and hit Nora in the back of
her head. She died a day later, having never regained
Despite the fact that the incident had been inadvertently filmed
by a Canadian television crew, the RUC have never admitted firing
the shot that killed Nora McCabe. In almost 20 years of
campaigning, the closest acknowledgment conceded by the state and
RUC has been that Nora died of injuries ``consistent with having
been hit by a plastic bullet''.
The story of Nora's death and the subsequent cover up, recounted
by her husband, is one of a number of accounts presented by
Rolston. ``State killings went on throughout the whole of the
conflict,'' says Rolston, ``and were not confined to the high
profile incidents such as Bloody Sunday, or shoot to kill in
North Armagh, and Gibraltar.''
State killings fall into a number of different categories. As in
the case of the three IRA Volunteers killed in Gibraltar, shoot
to kill operations were usually carried out by specifically
trained units. Then there was the excessive use of force in
public order situations, for example the killing of John Downes
during an annual commemoration of internment.
There were also individual actions by armed members of state
forces, (as in the case of Peter McBride). There was collusion of
state forces with loyalist death squads (as in the case of Pat
Finucane) and state force cover ups of loyalist killings (Seamus
Ludlow) and other culpable actions, including dereliction of
duty, as in the killing of Robert Hamill.
According to Rolston, the majority of state killings, over 80%,
have been carried out by the British Army. The RUC are
responsible for a further 15%, with the UDR responsible for eight
killings. Almost 90% of all people killed by state forces have
been from the nationalist community.
Unarmed civilians form the largest category of state killings. Of
all the civilians killed by state forces, only one was armed,
with four more carrying imitation firearms. 86% of civilians
killed by the state were Catholics.
The second largest category, 37% of all state killings, is that
of republican combatants, many unarmed at the time of their
deaths. The distinction between republican combatants and
nationalist civilians killed by the state is often deliberately
``In media representations, official accounts and unfortunately
also in popular memory, there is often little distinction made
between the various victims of state killings,'' says Rolston.
``After all, Peter McBride `had a coffee jar bomb', and Kevin
McGovern `took up the standard aiming stance for a pistol,
The state killing of nationalist civilians and the summary
execution of unarmed republicans is often justified by similar
cover stories. Gervaise McKerr `crashed through a police
roadblock'; Pearse Jordan `was transporting guns and ammunition
in a car'.
``Remarkably few loyalist military activists became the victims of
state killings, only 4 percent in all,'' writes Rolston. ``All but
two of the state killings of loyalists occurred before 1975.'' All
of these claims were subsequently exposed as false.
The pattern of state violence becomes all the more clear within
the wider context of collusion. State forces have not simply
failed to challenge loyalist violence, they have been actively
involved in directing loyalist violence against those considered
enemies of the state, nationalists and republicans.
Rolston estimates that state forces have colluded in as many
deaths as they have carried out directly, a further 350 killings.
``Collusion has been a factor in loyalist killings since early in
the conflict,'' writes Rolston, ``but reached a peak in the early
1990s''. Between March 1990 and September 1994, loyalists killed
185 people; in over 50% of the killings there is evidence of some
form of collusion.
Rolston argues that the state has constructed two classes of
victim, the deserving and undeserving. Victims of violence
perceived as outside the state were identified as ``innocent''.
Victims of state violence are mostly depicted as ``less than
innocent, or worse, downright culpable.''
Underpinning this was ``the unquestioning belief that the state
does not act as a terrorist, does not kill without reason or
justification.'' There was also the deliberate ``misinformation and
manipulation of the media by state forces''.
``The differential treatment of victims has its roots in the three
decades of the war itself,'' says Rolston. ``There was in effect
the social construction of the ideal victim. The two key elements
in that construct were `innocence' and `passivity'.
In other words to qualify as ``deserving'' a victim had to either
be identified as supporting the state, or shown to have taken no
oppositional stance, by either word or deed. By definition,
almost every victim of state violence is ``undeserving''.
``Such was the power of this ideology that it as possible in the
case of state violence to override even the most obvious criteria
of `innocence'. Thus, it was usually presumed and often stated in
official accounts that children killed by plastic bullets were
involved in, or at least caught up in riots.''
``No matter the period, the perpetrator, the method of killing,
the status of the victim, the post killing experience of
relatives of those killed by state forces is practically
identical,'' says Rolston.
Criticising the state's human rights record was usually condemned
on the grounds that it `played into the hands of the terrorists',
says Rolston. It was even worse for relatives who dared to demand
disclosure or prosecutions. ``To agitate was to draw down the
wrath of the state forces on themselves, to become as
marginalised and victimised as those for whom they fought.''
Of the family members interviewed by Rolston, most had never been
officially informed of their relative's death. Others were
informed ``in the most callous of ways''. After the killing of
eight IRA men at Loughgall, the UDR drove through the local
nationalist estate with a banner reading `eight nil'.
For others the first intimation of the death was a raid on their
home. Most often the death was deliberately concealed from the
family by the raiding party. It was only subsequently that
families realised why they had been raided.
d then there was the harassment. ``British soldiers frequently
drove at night to the monument erected to teenage plastic bullet
victim Carol Ann Kelly. `Wee Irish bitch' was one of the comments
``The family of Charles Breslin was subjected to numerous taunts
such as `Charlie's a Tetley tea bag,' a reference to the fact
that he was shot at least 13 times. Mairead Farrell's boyfriend,
Seamus Finucane, was stopped by the RUC and taunted: `well you
won't be fucking Mairead anymore'.''
Misrepresentations of the killings in the media were compounded
by deliberate negligence during official investigations. ``Loretta
Lynch, a campaigner in the case of Louis Leonard, summed up the
conclusion of many relatives: `Not only was there no
investigation, but there was a concerted effort not to
Even professionals ``who had a right and duty to investigate'' were
often thwarted. During the Gibraltar inquest, the crown
pathologist stated that he was not allowed to see ballistic
reports nor even the results of the blood and urine tests he
himself had sent for analysis.
During the inquest into the death of Charles Breslin, the
solicitor acting on behalf of the family was attacked by the RUC,
who ``knocked him to the ground, landed on top of him and pinned
him to the ground using their knee on his neck. And that was in
The treatment of those killed by the state and their families is
underpinned by a specific myth perpetuated by the British state,
argues Rolston. Within this myth the state portrays itself as a
democracy under siege from a terrorist conspiracy. Thus ``no
matter how harsh its actions,'' the state itself cannot be accused
of terrorism, ``because it is merely acting to protect democracy.''
Within this framework the ``terrorist'' label can be easily
extended ``to take in the family and friends of the `terrorist',
the geographical areas in which they live and any commentators
who refuse to preface their political remarks with a robust
condemnation of `terrorism'.
``The culture of denial, ingrained in the very heart of the
state's management of mass, and later armed, opposition in the
North of Ireland quickly percolated through all of the
institutions of the state,'' says Rolston.
He begins by recalling a conference organised by Relatives for
Justice in 1998, in which relatives of many people killed by
state forces spoke for the first time. Listening to Cornelius
Rooney, whose nine-year-old son Patrick was shot dead in his own
home by the RUC, Rolston compares his testimony to those of
victims and survivors speaking at South Africa's Truth and
``Unlike the South African case, the venue at which Cornelius
spoke was not a Truth Commission. It had not been set up
formally. It was not chaired by a person of international
standing. There were no state functionaries present... there was
no public acknowledgement that the meeting had even taken place.''
A truth commission, says Rolston, by acknowledging what the state
did and accepting that what was done by the state was wrong,
marks a turning point. ``Although it may appear simply a symbolic
device, it is intended to underwrite a new consensus about human
rights. Without such a consensus, there is no assurance that the
future will be any different from the past.''