Despite progress in the peace process, British forces in Ireland are still stifling freedom of information, writes Anthony McIntyre.
Ever since Peter Brooke, as Northern Ireland Secretary of State, made his 1990 statement that Britain had no selfish strategic interest for remaining in Ireland most people have come to accept that Brooke called it pretty much as it was. Northern Irish unionism rather than any imperialist imperative on the part of the British state was what ensured the continuation of partition.
Enter MI5. That situation now demands some reappraisal. With the new MI5 building at Hollywood, County Down, designed to monitor and combat ‘international terrorism’ the British state now has a long term strategic interest in keeping the North within the UK. Having a security service as the fulcrum on which long term political strategy turns is not without considerable consequences for human rights.
This becomes all the more pronounced in the wake of the Northern Ireland’s policing Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s damming report on collusion between RUC Special Branch and loyalist murder gangs. Special Branch emerged from that report looking pretty indistinguishable from the terrorist gang, whose murder campaign it was complicit.
The lesson is simple - those who police society from the shadows are often more shadowy and sinister than the forces they seek to monitor. They are therefore to be trusted only reluctantly and always in the wake of a serious health and safety check which pronounces them fit for democratic purpose.
One crucial body whose task it is in democratic society to perform such health and safety checks, the press, is now being forced on the back foot by a state eager to curb the prowess of the press and enhance the powers of the security services. The recently drafted Policing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Northern Ireland Order allows PSNI personnel to seize notes and electronic records for up to 96 hours. Claiming that new powers are needed because of “the increasingly sophisticated nature of serious crime” the Northern Ireland police guided by the intelligence agencies will now be able to mount surgical strikes aimed at heading off at the pass any journalistic investigation into the activities of the security agencies. The irony of course is that the body most recently exposed as having being up to its neck in terrorism was a crucial element in the British state security apparatus, RUC Special Branch. It is a matter of public record how abusive the security services are whatever their guise. Why increase their scope for abuse?
This move comes at a time when documentation is either, depending on whose ox is being gored, a crucial asset or liability being fought over by contesting sides. MI5 currently want their documents back from the Stevens team, whose task it has been for the best part of two decades to investigate collusion between the security services and armed groups in the island of Ireland. The new legislation currently being proposed will allow the same agencies to pervert the course of justice. It is to curb journalists from publishing their findings and also to intimidate whistleblowers and other sources from providing journalists with the much needed information that would lift the lid on nefarious state activities.
There is of course nothing new about this. The British state has been involved in numerous cover ups since it sent its troops onto Northern Irish streets in 1969. In 1972 Prime Minister Edward Heath set the parameters for justice when he told Lord Widgery on the eve of his inquiry into the bloody Sunday killings to be mindful that the war being waged by the British had a propaganda dimension. Widgery duly obliged and his name has been synonymous with whitewash ever since.
The former Greater Manchester Chief Constable, John Stalker, almost had his career destroyed in the 1980s when he began to investigate RUC shoot to kill operations which were carried out at the behest of the intelligence agencies. Canadian Judge Peter Cory, who in recent years investigated security service collusion, was reportedly furious with the British government’s tardy and obstructive approach to his findings and recommendations.
In other cases, including the 2005 trial of the MI5 agent Denis Donaldson, prosecutions were aborted or alternatively, Public Immunity Certificates were issued by the British state in a bid to ensure that knowledge about informers did not come to public attention. Arguably this was less rooted in concern for the welfare of informers than it was in the need to shield from democratic scrutiny the fact that information received that could have prevented death was in fact not acted upon. This issue is at the heart of concerns over the role of MI5 in relation to the 1998 Real IRA bombing of Omagh town which produced massive civilian casualties.
If democratic scrutiny is to have any currency in Northern Ireland, an unhindered press is a necessity rather than something to be doled out or withdrawn in accordance with the self serving interests of the government of the day. Censorship complementing cover ups might suit the state; it is disastrous for society.