British close ranks on 30 years in the North
British close ranks on 30 years in the North

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

Last week, the Oireachtas Committee on Justice reported on its deliberations on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings case in the aftermath of the Barron Report. I'm afraid it might have laboured manfully, but in the end it brought forth a mouse.

It wanted separate investigations into missing files and the original Garda investigation, and it then solemnly recommended that theTaoiseach askTony Blair to initiate a public inquiry. I can tell you now that the Taoiseach has two chances.

I'm afraid it's high time that the facts as they exist in this case - as indeed in many others - need to be faced. Neither the British political nor military establishment are in the slightest concerned about the methods by which they prosecuted the war in Ireland over the last 30 years. On every conceivable occasion when legal or judicial attempts have been made to open up the files into official or even quasi-official action on the part of the British state, the answer has been the same - no.

For years and years, the infamous Irish miscarriage of justice cases were caught in the determined grip of the Home Office in London,which seemed to care not in the slightest that huge numbers of innocent people were locked up. In the end, after 14 years, it was only the pressure of establishment figures - within the British establishment itself - that forced the cases to be reopened.

Even then, the word on the judicial street was that the Irish bombers were certainly guilty, but got offon the paucity of evidence when it was re-examined.

In 1998, Blair announced the Saville Inquiry into the events on Bloody Sunday in Derry.

Apart from the vastness of the inquiry and the costs involved,what has been most extraordinary to date was the utter determination of the ministry of defence to sabotage the proceedings.

Even though there is immunity from prosecution, and the events themselves are now well buried in history,the MOD has regarded the inquiry as an attack on its troops and its integrity.

This mood has certainly spread to the huge numbers of former paratroopers giving evidence, as, astonishingly, even 30 years on, the vast majority have turned up and calmly lied and lied through their teeth.

Given what we know now about those events in Derry, and given,too,that these men must have consciences, it has been a revelation to watch how utterly indifferent they continue to be to the relatives seeking only the justice of truth.

Witness also the seeming impossibility of investigating collusion in so many of the high-profile killings in the North. John Stevens has been inquiring into these events for nearly six years, and we still know officially as much as we did when he began.

Central figures in the investigation such as Brian Nelson andWilliam Stobie have died in the meantime, and still Stevens ploughs silently on. Now we have the new inquiry resulting from the investigations of the Canadian judge, Peter Cory.

Can anyone, given the attitudes displayed to date, seriously think that the security establishment will be any more helpful in this matter?

Essentially, there are two principal reasons why the official British state response to these matters has been minimal, if not downright bloody-minded. The first is that in the matter of quasiofficial and even official secret activities during the dirty war, nobody quite knows how far up the establishment rungs the responsibility goes.

The British state, with its fraught and complicated relationship between executive and security responsibility, is long versed in practices that it has no intention of revealing to the world.

At the heart of this matter is the independence of direct political control that its secret arm has always jealously guarded.

Of course, certain ministers and politicians know what is going on, but they do not know all of it - and, even more importantly, they don't want to.

Ministers can't be found out telling lies in the House of Commons if they are not aware of what was going on in the first place.

The British secret state and the British political state have always operated within a traditional and mutually comfortable `need to know' template.

It's part of the old imperial heritage; it dates from the days when the army acted first and the politicians explained it all afterwards. And public inquiry into such matters would have been regarded as quite simply treasonous.

This entire context is further complicated by the fact that at any time there was a variety of secret agencies at work in Ireland. And not only did each not know what the other was up to, but each jealously guarded its operations, sources and personnel.

At any one time there were various police, army, army intelligence not to mention secret service operations ongoing in the same locale and at the same time.The army distrusted the police, and the secret service distrusted both. In this context,which of any half-dozen secret operations is any inquiry liable to uncover - not to say open up?

The second reason why silence will continue to be golden is that few street operators now long in retirement are going to take the rap without pointing further up the chain of command. It will be the oldest military dilemma of all - the `orders is orders' stratagem that any inquiry would have to face before beginning the search within the establishment itself for who issued such orders.

Not to mention how far up the civil service or military pole the issuer of such `orders' might have climbed in the intervening 20 or even 30 years. So don't hold your breath.

Over and beyond all of this, for generations the British political class has determinedly protected its security and military establishment. It's the old imperial tradition, it's the way things have always been done, and anyway while politicians come and go, ``it's all the Queen's men who are there perpetually to guard us in our beds''.

Anyway, given the casualties on all sides, if a bit of roguery here and there left some dead and innocent Paddies around,well that's the way wars are fought.

I suspect the Taoiseach will be ceremonially locking up Sellafield before he ever gets delivery of the files that our naive parliamentarians are seeking.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News