Billy Wright's murder and the whiff of state collusion

Some of my thoughts on the Billy Wright inquiry and the issue of state collusion in Northern Ireland featured in this posting on The Guardian’s Comment is Free forum on September 15:

David Wright’s verdict on the £30m, six-year inquiry into the death of his son, Billy, in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in 1997, was damningly succinct: “A whitewash.”

The Billy Wright inquiry report, released on Tuesday, repudiated accusations that security forces were involved in the one-time loyalist leader’s murder by members of the republican Irish National Liberation Army. Nevertheless, a distinct whiff of collusion still surrounds the killing. Lord MacLean’s report cites “serious failings” by prison authorities in the runup to Wright’s murder but fails to answer the case’s key question: how were the guns used in the killing brought into a prison that was supposed to be Europe’s most secure?

Of course, claims of collusion involving the British state in Northern Ireland are nothing new.

Only last month, the police ombudsman in Northern Ireland’s report into the 1972 Claudy bombing found that the British government colluded with the Catholic church to cover up the involvement of a priest and IRA member, Father James Chesney, in an attack in which nine people lost their lives. In June, the Saville inquiry established beyond all reasonable doubt that the British army in Derry fired on unarmed civilians without provocation on Bloody Sunday.

The Billy Wright inquiry will not be the last investigation into government collusion during the Troubles. Inquiries into the deaths of lawyer Rosemary Nelson and Portadown man Robert Hamill are currently taking place and expected to report in the coming months, while south of the border the Smithwick tribunal in Dublin has spent five years examining the alleged involvement of members of the Garda Siochána in the fatal shootings of RUC chief superintendent Harry Breen and superintendent Robert Buchanan in 1980. All these inquiries address important issues but they also raise the question: has the time come for an independent public review of the wider role of the British state in the Northern Ireland conflict?

Unlike loyalist and republican terrorists, the army and the police acted in the name of all the citizens of the UK – and the British public can, with some justification, claim a right to know the exact nature of the state’s involvement in the Troubles.

That the security forces successfully infiltrated paramilitary groupings on both sides of the sectarian divide is hardly news. Double agents such as Stakeknife were integral to army and police operations, and informers were operating within loyalist and republican ranks from as early as 1970.

The actions of organisations such as the shadowy Force Research Unit, a covert military intelligence unit set up by the Ministry of Defence in the early 1980s, are far more opaque. While Sir John Stevens found little evidence of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries back in 1990, the former head of the Metropolitan police has since revised his view. Indeed, the FRU alone has been implicated in the deaths of at least 14 Catholics in the 1980s, during which time British Army Intelligence Corps double agent Brian Nelson was also intelligence chief for the loyalist Ulster Defence Association.

Public inquiries are notoriously expensive and time-consuming activities. The Saville inquiry cost £191m, and while the Hamill and Nelson inquiries are unlikely to prove as expensive, the eventual bill for the taxpayer will almost certainly run into eight figures in each case.

What form an independent review of role of the state in the conflict might take is open to debate. One option is to replace lawyer-heavy public inquiries with a form of truth commission. Rather than adopting the well-known – and much-criticised – South African model, the British (and Irish) government could commit to the declassification of documents relating to the Troubles alongside a series of more focused reviews targeted at specific incidents where security force involvement has been questioned, with witnesses subpoenaed to ensure participation.

Many of the protagonists in the worst atrocities of the Northern Irish conflict are either dead or aged. It would certainly be possible to release much classified information without jeopardising ongoing operations against dissident republicans. Whether it would be possible to do so without threatening the status quo in Stormont in another matter: while Sinn Féin are broadly in favour of some form of truth and reconciliation process for Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist party stand firmly against the idea.

The sectarian division that continues to structure Northern Irish society is often presented as a product of a malignant relationship between Catholics and Protestants. But the actions of the British state over the 30 years of the Troubles, and in the decade since, have often played a crucial role in shaping and distorting this relationship.

Acknowledging the role of the British state and understanding the extent of collusion during the Troubles could provide Northern Ireland a genuine opportunity to move beyond the conflict. Of course, to do this it will require an end to whitewashes, too.

£30m spent, but questions remain unanswered

Even in the fractious world of Troubles Northern Ireland, Billy Wright was a singularly divisive character.
As the leader of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force in Portadown, he was responsible for the killings of more than 20 Catholics in the 1980s. In 1996, he rejected the UVF ceasefire, creating the Loyalist Volunteer Force and orchestrating a campaign of sectarian violence from his Mid-Ulster stronghold.

Wright was living under death threats from both sides of the paramilitary divide when, in the Maze prison in December 1997, he was shot dead by three members of the republican Irish National Liberation Army.

The controversy surrounding the man dubbed “King Rat” did not dissipate with his death. Allegations of collusion swirled around the murder: Where could paramilitary prisoners in the Maze, supposedly one of Europe’s safest prisons, get access to handguns?

How were the INLA killers, John Kenneway, Christopher “Crip” McWilliams and John Glennon, able to ambush the van carrying Wright from one section of the prison to another?

The 704-page report into Wright’s killing categorically rejects all accusations of state collusion. Summarising the report, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson said “serious failings” by the prison authorities did “facilitate” the shooting, but these were the result of “negligence” and were neither intentional nor premeditated.

The report suggests that the security regime in the Maze had become lax and predictable: a point freely acknowledged in 2007 by Kenneway, who described security as “a joke”.

Elsewhere, the Royal Ulster Constabulary is criticised for failing to pass on intelligence from agents within the INLA that the group had discussed killing the loyalist leader in the months leading up to December 1997.

Wright’s father, David, vociferous in his calls for a full public inquiry, has described the report as “firm and final” proof of collusion by the state, but in reality its findings stop short of such a definitive conclusion.

The report calls for radical reform of the prison service, but most paramilitary groups have now disbanded.

Meanwhile, the state collusion has not been proven. Yet Lord MacLean and the report’s authors admit they don’t know how the guns that killed Wright got into the Maze. This would suggest there are still questions to be answered, but public attention is more likely to fixate on the inquiry’s cost – estimated at £30 million – than the controversy that still surrounds the death of one of Northern Ireland’s most feared sectarian killers.

This piece first appeared in the Scotsman on September 15

Truth must come out over collusion claims

In 1972, Northern Ireland looked to be on the brink of civil war. In many respects, the bombs that ripped through Claudy on 31 July epitomised the senseless brutality of the Troubles’ bloodiest year.

According to Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson’s report, the IRA were responsible for the Claudy bombing and its south Derry cell was led by a local Catholic priest, Father James Chesney.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary were aware of Father Chesney’s involvement, yet secretary of state Willie Whitelaw reached an agreement with Cardinal Conway, the Irish Catholic Primate, that allowed the priest to be spirited across the border to a parish in the Irish Republic, where he died in 1980.

Mr Hutchinson’s report – which was instigated following an anonymous letter sent to the ombudsman in 2002 – will go some way to explaining what happened but, 38 years after the atrocity, it raises awkward questions for both the Catholic Church and the British government.

Yesterday, Cardinal Conway’s successor, Seán Brady, said that the Catholic Church did not whitewash Father Chesney’s involvement in the Claudy bombing. Across Ireland, trust in the Catholic Church is at an historic low, in part due to Cardinal Brady’s own role in the cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests. Mr Hutchinson’s report again raises the spectre of collusion by the British state in Northern Ireland, just months after the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

Senior police officers, civil servants, even the secretary of state were all aware of Father Chesney’s role in Claudy, yet no effort was made to prosecute him.

Some will argue that the arrest of a priest for IRA activity would have tipped Northern Ireland into full-scale civil war. Owen Patterson has rejected the suggestion that an inquiry into Claudy be set up. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland is right, but for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the time has come for a full independent inquiry into British state’s involvement in the Northern Irish Troubles.

This piece first appeared in the Scotsman on August 24