Anne Cadwallader looks at a history of violent state intimidation against activists
WHEN May McLoughlin died, she believed the man who had murdered her husband, Frederick, worked in a local cheese factory.
Only 30 years later did her three sons discover their father’s killer had also been a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) reservist.
For 30 years, Ann Brecknell believed her husband had been killed by an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gang who shot him as he lifted a glass to celebrate the birth of their third child.
Only recently did she discover the gang included at least one RUC man and a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), then the largest regiment in the British Army.
Patsy McNeice’s widow Josephine died of grief, weighing five stone, without knowing the gun used to kill her husband had been taken from a UDR armoury and that he had been the last of its 11 victims.
None of these families, and many others, would ever have been accorded the dignity and respect that the truth confers if there had been a British government veto over the release of information on “national security” grounds.
It took 60 years and a Supreme Court hearing for the families of the 24 Malayan plantation workers killed by the Scots Guards at Batang Kali in 1948 to be accorded the same respect — although they were informed their legal action was too old to go any further.
It took the thousands of Kenyans who had been beaten, castrated and tortured during the Mau Mau uprising roughly the same length of time, 60 years, to receive any kind of acknowledgement, compensation and apology.
It is not hard to read between the lines. British policy on human rights abuses in its former, and current, colonies does not change: deny, deny and deny even in the face of the facts.
And when that proves impossible because the evidence, somehow, begins to emerge, then delay, delay and delay in the hope that bereaved relatives will pass away or the courts rule the crime was too long ago to merit examination.
Anyone remotely conversant with the law knows that, under the European Convention on Human Rights, the identity of informers is protected, unless they have committed a crime.
Therefore there can be no wholesale “naming and shaming” of those who have been paid to provide information, unless they broke the law.
We also understand there is a case to be made for withholding information that might conceivably be of use to Isis and al-Qaida.
What we fail to see is how the truth behind collusion between the state and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland 40 years ago could possibly fall into that category.
We are realistic enough to realise that no government anywhere in the world will air all its dirty linen in public.
But we do think, on grounds of natural justice and to bolster public confidence in the law and policing, that there should be a process of independent appeal if salient facts relating to a death are stifled without explanation.
The same state which may have broken the law should not be permitted to police the same law as well as act as judge and jury on the truth. When the state breaks the law, it is in a uniquely powerful position.
Unlike virtually any other crime, all the evidence tends to be under its control.
Unless a whistleblower comes forward, then the state can close ranks and say absolutely nothing unless the truth can be somehow uncovered.
Even then, it has other ammunition with which to protect itself through its own deep pockets, leading to interminable legal delays.
The Pat Finucane Centre, for which I work on behalf of bereaved families, faces an almost omnipotent opponent, the state in all its guises.
All the files kept by the old RUC are locked up in secure archives at a base outside the town of Carrickfergus.
Those, that is, that have not already been destroyed because of “asbestos contamination” as was the case in dozens of disputed killings where the papers were lodged at Gough Barracks in Armagh city.
Increasingly, public records kept at the National Archives at Kew are being withheld. Some files previously open have even been reclassified.
Examples include one file revealing details of malpractice within the UDR in Belfast, another detailing thefts of UDR weapons from November 1970 to August 1973 and a third expressing concern about press reports on links between the RUC and British Army with loyalists.
Some of the details reclassified were reported in detail in Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland in October 2013.
The words “horse” and “stable door” come unaccountably to mind!
Even previously open documents relating to inquests and long-distant court hearings, kept in the ironically named Public Records Office for Northern Ireland, will not be released to families unless each and every family member signs a legal undertaking never to speak about them to anyone else.
Inevitably, people are casting about for reasons other than “national security” to explain London’s resolute determination to keep its secrets.
A theory to which we in the Pat Finucane Centre give some credence is that the truth, once revealed, would be exceedingly embarrassing.
Just for a moment, let us consider events in the 1970s, the first decade of the conflict.
We examined 120 deaths in Lethal Allies, in one geographical region between 1972 and 1976.
Every single one of the victims targeted north of the border were roughly of the same class.
They were not unemployed or republican or living in the many rundown housing estates of the towns and cities of Mid-Ulster, places like Portadown, Dungannon and Armagh.
They were instead shopkeepers, publicans, builders, self-employed artisans, small farmers.
If they had any political allegiance, it was to the moderate SDLP rather than Sinn Fein.
Why kill them? One answer might be found in the words of British military strategist Major General Sir Charles E Callwell, author of Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896) who wrote that force should be used for its impact on an insurgent’s popular support rather than for outright military victory.
Insurgents, he said, “must be made to feel a moral inferiority” and “recognise that the forces of civilisation are dominant and not to be denied.”
Major General Sir Frank Kitson is already well-known for his view that all the authority of the state, including the law, the media and the military, must be bent towards defeating insurgents.
His theory of “counter-gangs,” honed against the Mau Mau in Kenya, was redefined and used during the early days of the conflict in Ireland.
“There are innumerable ways in which the principle [of countergangs] can be applied,” he wrote. “It is up to those involved to invent or adapt such methods.”
For countergangs, read collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries.
Is London’s real priority to keep well hidden that it liberally used in Ireland the same methods as in Kenya, Malaya, Aden and elsewhere — illegal under both domestic and international law — during the conflict and that its war here is essentially colonial?
If that were to be exposed, London could no longer trumpet on the international stage that its role was merely that of a neutral umpire, a benevolent arbiter.
The state twists and turns to keep its secrets. Families, starved of information, do the same with teams of lawyers trying to use new inquests, judicial reviews and civil compensation cases, suing the current Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable (as legal inheritor of the RUC), the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
In turn, the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton, the judiciary and the NIO sing in chorus that they don’t have the money to redact documents prior to publication.
It could all be so different. The current impasse is a crisis of politics, specifically British politics.
The Stormont House Agreement proposed mechanisms and architecture which would allow reviews by a Historic Investigations Unit which would have full police powers.
Cases which can go no further could, if the family wished, be passed to an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval which would intervene with whatever policing, military or paramilitary body was responsible for the death, in case someone, somewhere wants to help the grieving relatives.
The money was granted to fund these and other proposals. This is the right time.
The “national security” veto is unwarranted, unnecessary and — above all — cruel in the extreme to families. Moreover, it is holding back the reconciliation so badly needed between both communities in Northern Ireland.
Both outcomes are unacceptable. n Anne Cadwallader is a case worker with the Pat Finucane Centre, based in Armagh, and author of Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland (Mercier Press, 2013)