How truth is still a casualty in dirty war
Dissident republican lies over an attack on police in Belfast shows the difficulties of reporting on our terrorist violence, says Brian Rowan
The entry in my diary on August 1 reads, meeting Belfast 2pm. There is no other information; no suggestion of who I was meeting or why.
By two o'clock I was sitting in a city centre coffee shop, scribbling a few notes on a napkin. And, across the table from me, was a leadership figure in the dissident faction Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH).
This was one of those conversations in the reporting of conflict that had too many gaps in the information; far too many missing pieces.
The meeting had been prompted by an ONH claim of a double-ambush on the police a few days earlier; a claim to another newspaper that suggested a gun and mortar bomb attack on a patrol in west Belfast.
And just hours before the meeting there had been a report that footage had emerged showing the attack.
I had questions, but there were no answers.
Yes, there was a storyline; a description of the ambush, but no detail that could be scrutinised or double-checked.
I knew from conversations with the PSNI that there was a single strike mark on the police vehicle; that it had been hit by a bullet, but there was no information to confirm a mortar bomb had been launched.
So in that coffee shop meeting, I was asking for detail. How many shots were fired? What was the make-up of this mortar bomb; its explosive content; how and from where it was launched; had it been fitted to some launching scaffolding; what did it hit, where was it now?
The man across the table told me he was not going to discuss fine detail; the police were being "coy" he said.
But he described two points of attack - one from where the shots were fired, and then a distance of some yards away where the mortar was launched.
It was an attack that had involved numbers, he said, including someone who had filmed the scene.
I asked for the distance between the two points, and he looked over his shoulder out the window: "From here to that parking sign," he said. It was a distance of about 100 yards."
But none of this was convincing. The dots weren't joining up; there was more doubt than detail.
Mortar bombs don't just disappear. They leave a mark wherever and whatever they hit.
The timing was also interesting. Just a few days earlier a number of dissident factions had come together in a new coalition styling itself the IRA.
But Oglaigh na hEireann was not part of that new structure; those new arrangements. So, maybe its words and claim were an attempt to demonstrate an ability to operate alone; with this new capacity to launch horizontal mortars at police vehicles.
It was a statement of intent; words that spoke loudly of the threat posed. But in this particular jigsaw much of the picture was missing.
The following day, after that city centre meeting, this newspaper ran a report under the headline: 'Police cast doubt on dissident claim of mortar bomb ambush'. There were no scorch marks on the vehicle that had been targeted, nor had its windscreen been shattered in the attack. At the scene there was nothing to suggest a mortar had been fired, but what about that footage purporting to show what had happened?
An answer to this question came within 24 hours. Another extensive on-the-ground search had been carried out.
The police were looking for a firing point, retracing the journey of the patrol vehicle, examining trajectory, searching for signs of a strike mark.
But there was nothing.
"It didn't compute and it doesn't compute," a PSNI source later told me.
By now the police had also examined what was claimed to be the footage of the attack, and were satisfied that it was not a recording of the incident. I was told that it was several years old, and it has since been reported elsewhere that it was dated July 2007.
The footage quickly disappeared from where it had been posted online.
ONH has not come back with a convincing, detailed description of events to prove its statement.
And all of this raises more questions about the war games in that dissident world.
Should we be surprised about disinformation in conflict? No we shouldn't.
All sides have been involved in this stretching across a period of decades, often to deny involvement in events.
But this is different.
This has the look of concocting a story to suggest a bigger threat and to claim the highest place in terms of capacity and 'war' know-how within that dissident world.
And it has backfired.
None of this is to dismiss the threat posed by a range of organisations. But in moments like this there are questions about how other information should be treated - questions about the authenticity of communications.
If this story doesn't add up, what about others? Wars are full of lies, and truth is often hard to find.
But these latest events underscore the phoney, pathetic and pointless nature of continuing armed actions and the groups behind them.
Yes, they could kill again, and no doubt will try to do just that.
But for what purpose, other than killing to try to stay relevant in a process and a place that is moving further away from war.
Earlier this week the Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney , spoke of the need for "united political leadership" to oppose what he called "anti-peace process militarism".
That joined-up approach and challenge needs to happen sooner rather than later.
The dissidents need to be surrounded in a dialogue that tells them they are going nowhere.