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.

A New Future for Derry after Saville

Early last Tuesday morning, 56 men and women, two relatives of each of the 27 people killed and injured on Bloody Sunday, met in silence at Derry’s historic city walls. In the course of a solemn, hour-long procession, they walked by the Bogside’s low-rise flat complexes and on past William Street before finishing up at the ornate Guildhall in the centre of the city.

Inside the Guildhall, the group put down the black-and white pictures of their loved ones – each photograph accompanied by the words ‘‘set the truth free’’ – and picked up a 60-page précis of Lord Saville’s long-awaited report into the killing of 14 civilians following a civil rights march in Derry on January 30,1972.

‘‘I was very nervous walking into the Guildhall, but within a minute or two, we were all smiling,” said John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was killed on that day.

‘‘It is a massive relief for us all,” Kelly said of Saville’s key finding, that the British army in Derry fired on unarmed civilians without justification or provocation. ‘‘It has been 38 and a half years of hard work, but the families were determined never to give up.

And to hear the words ‘your brother is innocent’ was so special. The tears welled up in my eyes.”

By Tuesday afternoon, thousands had gathered outside the Guildhall to watch British prime minister David Cameron’s speech from Westminster live on big screens specially erected for the event.

Applause rippled across the crowd as the prime minister said ‘‘sorry’’ for the actions of the British army on Bloody Sunday, which he described as ‘‘wrong’’ and ‘‘unjustifiable’’.

‘‘That a British prime minister – and a Conservative one – was prepared to stand up and apologise to the people of Derry, to the whole world, that was incredible,” Kelly told The Sunday Business Post.

John McKinney, whose eldest brother Willie died on Bloody Sunday, described last Tuesday as ‘‘a great day for Derry’’. ‘‘We always knew the truth, but when you get an official apology from the British government, that is just unbelievable,” he said.

McKinney – a founding member of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, started in 1992 – said he believed that the previous Labour government should be given credit for setting up the Saville inquiry 12 years ago. ‘‘I don’t think any of this would have happened if Tony Blair hadn’t been prime minister at the time. He took a real personal interest in Bloody Sunday and his involvement was crucial,” he said.

The days following the release of Saville’s report have been dominated by questions over whether or not the soldiers from 1 Para involved in Bloody Sunday should stand trail.

McKinney, like many in Derry, is unsure if the Director of Public Prosecutions could, or should, pursue the matter in the courts.

‘‘To be honest, I don’t know if there should be a trial. Whatever happens, I don’t think anyone is going to go to jail for what they did that day,” said McKinney.

John Kelly, however, believes that the dead – and their families – deserve to see the soldiers involved prosecuted.

‘‘The next step now is justice.

My young brother was only 17 and he was murdered. Soldier F murdered my brother, he murdered John McKinney’s brother, he murdered Paddy Doherty, he murdered Barney McGuigan, and the due course of law is to prosecute him. I think it should happen and it should happen quickly. That would be closure for me,” he said.

The memory of Bloody Sunday has hung heavy over Derry for almost 40 years. ‘‘Every day I wake up, I think about Bloody Sunday. I’ll take it to the grave with me,” McKinney said. But Kelly believed that the Saville report could help the maiden city to move out of the shadows of the past.

‘‘It’s now a matter of getting on with life, which we haven’t been able to do. Now we can move on – not just the families, but the whole city.

Hopefully, now that the name of Bloody Sunday has been removed from the city, the people will be able to move forward,” said Kelly, who vividly remembers bringing his dying brother to hospital.

But not everyone in Derry agrees that, at £191 million, the Saville inquiry proved value for money.

‘‘My view – and it’s a view that is shared across the unionist community – is that the waste of resources that went into the Saville process was just that, a waste of £200 million that was never going to satisfy people on either side of the community,” the Democratic Unionist Party’s Gregory Campbell told The Sunday Business Post.

‘‘It’s £200 million more than was spent on inquiries into deaths in the unionist community,” Campbell said.

The Derry East MP’s opposition to the Saville inquiry was not shared by Mairead Walsh, 24, a librarian from the Catholic Gobnascale area in Derry’s Waterside. ‘‘Everyone in Derry knew that the [Bloody Sunday] victims were innocent, but to hear it like this is so important for everybody.”

Derry has long been one of the economically depressed regions in Ireland, but Walsh, like many others, believed that the Saville ruling could have a lasting, positive impact on the city.

‘‘There is a real sense of motion in this. It’s time for Derry to move on.

For years, the city has felt – and been – hard done by, but now there is the chance for it to build itself up, get more inward investment and for people to come back home.

For so long, there was never really a reason to stay, but maybe this could be a start of a new future forDerry and its people.”

This article appeared in The Sunday Business Post on June 20

Warm welcome in Derry as 'truth is set free' after 38 years

At 9:45am yesterday, 56 men and women met in silence at Derry’s historic city walls.

In the course of a solemn, purposeful procession, they walked by the Bogside’s low-rise flats complexes and on past William Street, each carrying a black-and-white picture accompanied by four short words, “Set the truth free”.

Less than an hour later, their 38-year-old call was answered. Inside the ornate Guildhall, the group, all relatives of the 27 people killed and injured in Derry on 30 January, 1972, read the first public copies of Lord Saville’s report into the events of Bloody Sunday. Despite stretching to more than 5,000 pages, this report, the result of the longest-running and costliest inquiry in British legal history, leaves no room for equivocation: the British Army in Derry fired on unarmed civilians without justification or provocation.

Acknowledging Saville’s report in the Commons, David Cameron’s speech – the most statesmanlike of his brief tenure – was peppered with words such as “sorry”, “wrong” and “unjustifiable”; sentiments conspicuous by their absence from Lord Widgery’s original, rushed, whitewashed report, published weeks after the event.

Back in Derry, thousands gathered outside the Guildhall, the city’s main civic building, to watch Mr Cameron’s speech live on big screens specially erected for the event. Ringed by larger-than-life photographs of the 13 people shot dead by British paratroopers – and pictures of another man, John Johnson, who died of injuries sustained that day – the people of Northern Ireland’s second city came expecting answers.

Applause rippled across the crowd as the Prime Minister summarised the report’s main findings: soldiers from 1 Para fired the first shots; none of the dead was armed; soldiers gave no warning. But claps audibly turned to boos as Mr Cameron praised the army’s role in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner: the North’s history is still a fractured and divided one.

The publication of the Saville report has been welcomed by republicans, but caused consternation among loyalists: if the deaths of 14 Catholics justify a £191 million inquiry, many ask, why do the 11 Protestants killed by the Provisionals at Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, 1989, or the nine dead at Claudy not deserve similar treatment?

But Bloody Sunday is different. The killers were not loyalist or republican paramilitaries, but members of the British security forces. It was the state, as Saville makes clear, that carried out these killings, the largest such incident since the Peterloo massacre in Manchester of 150 years earlier.

Saville’s findings are unlikely to disrupt the power-sharing government at Stormont – not least as they cleared deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, an IRA commander in Derry and one of the 922 people who gave oral testimony to the inquiry, of any wrongdoing on Bloody Sunday. But whether or not the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to press charges against any of the soldiers involved could have important implications, particularly for the North’s newly devolved policing and justice department.

“Widgery’s lies have been exposed. The truth has been brought home at last,” Tony Doherty, whose father, Paddy, was shot dead aged 31 on Bloody Sunday, told the crowd at the Guildhall.

Saville has set the truth free – now the attention, in Northern Ireland and beyond, will turn to what the authorities decide to do with his answers.

This piece first appeared in The Scotsman on June 15