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Lawyers the only winners in difficult search for the truth

Up to 150 former soldiers want PSNI detectives to investigate IRA gun and bomb attacks on them during the Troubles. Republicans are quick to call for public inquiries into the state's activities, so why not the terrorists'? Henry McDonald reports.

Published 03/02/2016

Mike Harmson, who served in the army in Belfast
Mike Harmson, who served in the army in Belfast
Mike Harmson on patrol in Northern Ireland in the 1980s

More than 300,000 men and women served in the Army during Operation Banner - the official title for the military's intervention in Northern Ireland from 1969.

If all of them sued the state for negligence, or asked the PSNI to investigate everything that happened to them, from seeing comrades killed before their eyes, to suffering serious injuries themselves, or simply having some child barely into his teens taking a pot shot at them, it would cripple policing - or even, potentially, empty the public coffers.

While this scenario may sound outlandish, up to 150 ex-soldiers are asking the PSNI to investigate IRA gun and bomb attacks on them during the Troubles.

One former serviceman is demanding that detectives open an inquiry into no fewer than three separate IRA attacks he was caught up in during the 1980s, raising the prospect of the floodgates opening from a new source of discontent among the "combatants" of the Troubles.

Ex-soldier Mike Harmson's case would set down yet another precedent in the blizzard of legal actions blowing across the post-conflict landscape, as this society still fails to cope with the recent past.

If the PSNI takes Harmson's case seriously, it certainly could encourage many other army - and, possibly, police - veterans to call for similar investigations, thus further tying up the police's limited resources.

On one level, it seems harsh to wag the finger at Harmson and any other fellow veterans who want to seek out the truth (whatever that elastic concept actually means in the Northern Irish context) about what happened to them during the Troubles.

Those veterans can argue - with some justification - that ex-IRA members haven't exactly been shy about demanding inquiries into incidents where either they were wounded, or their comrades were killed by the security forces.

They appear happy enough, in many instances, to even receive compensation from the very state they were fighting against. Republicans, in general, can be accused of double-standards when it comes to the crimes of the Troubles past.

They will demand publicly-funded inquiries into state killings, such as the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971 - a call that is certainly loaded with justification - but howl with outrage when the victims of the IRA, such as the families of The Disappeared, accuse senior Sinn Fein figures like Gerry Adams of complicity in "war crimes".

Unionists, meanwhile, demand that there should be a comprehensive tribunal into the role of the Irish government in 1969-70 in helping to create and arm the Provisional IRA.

Yet, at the same time, these same politicians barely mention the collusion of British state forces with the loyalist paramilitaries in the killings of both republicans and, in much larger numbers, ordinary Catholics.

The only consistent thing about the debate over how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of the Troubles is the inconsistency of all sides caught up in the conflict in terms of their selective approach to "the truth".

One of the unspoken aspects of the controversy is how we are beginning to see the emergence of a policy of leaks and counter-leaks by the various parties.

The disclosure from the files stolen from the Castlereagh break-in of an informer at the heart of the IRA's disastrous attack on the Shankill Road in 1993 may be part of this new propaganda war.

Veteran IRA watcher Ed Moloney has suggested that the leak of this information and the implication (still unproven) that through their informer the RUC knew an attack was imminent, but did nothing to prevent it, was a shot across the British state's bows.

Moloney contends that this row over the Shankill massacre was whipped up to warn the Government that Sinn Fein has a bank of embarrassing information it could leak out - unless London agrees to a new deal on the past that would satisfy republicans.

The trouble with this strategy is that the past, just like collusion, is multi-faceted and contains uncomfortable truths for all those parties to the conflict gone by.

At present, English police are preparing to investigate the career of Freddie Scappaticci as the IRA's chief spycatcher, who, it is alleged, was, in fact, a high-grade agent for the British inside the Provisionals.

This police inquiry could possibly lead to the former Belfast republican being summoned to give evidence in court about his activities as both an IRA informer-hunter and a double agent for military intelligence.

Although the alleged victims and their families may want their day in court to hear him cross-examined, is it in the interests of either the state or the former IRA high command to have the man they call "Stakeknife" talking from the dock about what went on during the "Dirty War"?

There is only one answer to that question, which is why it is highly likely that, through injunctions, super-injunctions, or gagging orders, we will never hear the British superspy working within the IRA speak in a public forum, such as a court of law, about some of the darkest secrets of that conflict.

Leaking can also work both ways when it comes to sensitive archive material from 1969 onwards. Who knows, for instance, what embarrassing audio, or video, recordings veterans of the RUC, Force Research Unit (FRU), or MI5 have stashed away somewhere for a rainy day when they, or their former colleagues, face court or an inquiry set up initially to prosecute or question them.

At the weekend, in the Guardian online, the grandson of Eamon de Valera pointed up the central difficulty of having a truth and reconciliation process in post-Troubles Northern Ireland.

Former Dublin minister Eamon O'Cuiv said something so blatantly obvious, but vitally important: you cannot get ex-combatants to tell the truth about their role in the conflict if, by doing so, they face arrest, prosecution, or possibly imprisonment.

O'Cuiv was consistent enough to state that, if you believe no IRA veteran should be prosecuted for unsolved crimes from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement amnesty of 1998, then you cannot in the same breath argue that British troops, or Ulster police officers, should be tried and convicted over what they did during the Troubles - and that even includes the Bloody Sunday paratroopers.

O'Cuiv has made one of the sanest and most logical interventions in the debate so far over how we deal with our troubled past: you cannot have a truth recovery process in the shadow of possible trial and conviction.

If you follow that zig-zag route, the terminus will be another bitter and divisive phase of communal cat-calling and division.

And the only winners in that scenario are probably the lawyers.

Belfast Telegraph

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