Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

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.

Billy Wright's murder and the whiff of state collusion

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