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Unpalatable truth is Northern Ireland will never get full disclosure on Troubles

Unfortunately for the victims, Government and former paramilitaries have too much to lose by coming clean over past, says Brian Walker

At present there is much debate about dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. Many people who lost family members in the Troubles want to know what happened to them and who was responsible for their deaths. There is talk of some type of truth recovery process.

Unfortunately, from the example of other violent incidents in recent Irish history and how these stories have been recorded and revealed, and because of contemporary political exigencies, it is unlikely that we will ever get the full picture of what happened.

In 1947 in the south it was decided to record what happened during the revolutionary period in Ireland, 1913-21, from the recollections of those who had been active in these years in support of the revolution.

Over the next decade 1,773 witness statements were collected by the Government-run Bureau of Military History. After the last statement was collected in 1957, however, it was decided these records would be sealed, and only in 2003 were they made available for public access.

The reason for the closure of the documents was that many of the events recorded were still controversial and contained allegations which had not been checked.

The period covered ended in July 1921 and deliberately avoided the Civil War, which was even more divisive.

When the records were opened they helped to cast light on this revolutionary period. Nonetheless, there are problems with this evidence.

Some leading figures, such as Eamon de Valera and Tom Barry, refused to make statements. Witnesses declined to come forward for some of the more controversial or notorious incidents.

These accounts were recorded many years after the events and sometimes people made statements with the benefit of hindsight. Other times witnesses tried to present themselves in a particular light, or had bad memories.

These statements were not interrogated or questioned at the time, and we know they often contain inaccuracies, deliberate or not. These records are important but they have to be treated very carefully by historians.

It is unlikely that such a process would work here. When an effort was made by Boston College to record memories of some former paramilitaries under a promise of secrecy, the organisers were ordered by the courts to hand over material relevant to police enquiries about events during the Troubles.

In our case, no guarantee of secrecy can be given. Anyhow, the whole point of the idea of getting the truth about these events is that people want to know now, not a century later.

Even if some sort of amnesty was given to those former paramilitaries who told their story, there would still be a lot of the problems encountered earlier in the south. Many, in particular leaders, would refuse to testify, while the testimony of others would be selective or inaccurate. It is likely information would not be forthcoming on the most notorious incidents.

On the UK Government side, information on past events is also likely to be partial. A very interesting insight into its attitude to the past, in light of concerns for national security, was revealed recently in a court case in London.

In June 2015 Irish historian Barry Keane took a case to an appeals tribunal in London to be allowed to see some documents in the National Archives at Kew in London. He had previously been refused permission to see these papers.

Curiously, the documents were over a century old and contained the names of informants against Irish secret societies in the period 1892-1910. Even more curiously, opposed to their disclosure were the Information Commissioner, the Home Office and the London Metropolitan Police.

There were two main concerns for this opposition. The first was that it was believed there was danger to the lives of the descendants of these informants if their identities were revealed.

Even after all this time, it was feared that resentment over their actions would lead to violence.

The second, and probably the main concern, was that to disclose their names would be a serious risk to national security. How could this information from over 100 years ago affect current national security?

It was argued by a Metropolitan Police officer that disclosure of the information would have an immediate effect on the recruitment of what were called covert human intelligence sources (CHIS), ie informants and agents. Complete confidentially was essential to recruit and retain these individuals who were critical in the fight against current terrorism and crime.

It was argued that the release of information regarding CHIS activity, no matter how historical, would damage CHIS activities nationally and internationally.

It was the policy of all three respondents "to protect the identity of informants in perpetuity".

In the end the tribunal accepted that, for the safety of descendants and for the ability of the State to maintain its national security, the records should remain closed.

For these same arguments, security records in Northern Ireland will be heavily redacted or censored. The fear would be that the many people who gave information about our violent events - informers, to use the local parlance - would be in real danger. There can be no doubt about this, as we know from the fates of Denis Donaldson and Eamonn Collins.

The Government will be unwilling to release material which could provide information to reveal the activities and identities of informers. Their main concern is not to conceal what happened in the past, but to make sure it can recruit and retain such people in the future.

So it is primarily because of current exigencies that the Government will not provide full information about our Troubles. It is also the case that, due to current exigencies, former paramilitaries will be reluctant to tell their full stories.

In part this is because between 1966 and 2006 the paramilitaries were responsible for 3,264 out of 3,720 deaths. In part, also, this is because they lost many of their volunteers at their own hands.

Of the nearly 400 republican dead, over half were killed by premature bomb explosions, by their own organisations as informers or due to internecine feuding. A significant number of loyalists lost their lives for similar reasons.

Paramilitaries will not want the full story told of their activities in the past because of modern day repercussions. This is especially true for the republicans, who have a strong political agenda. At the moment Sinn Fein is hopeful of future success in Dail Eireann elections and the Irish presidential election. Full disclosure of republican activities would severely damage such hopes, not only in the general public but among their own followers.

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that we will ever get the full truth of what happened. As we have seen in the case of the information gathered in the south, there are deep problems with witness statements about such historical events.

Full truth about the past will not be revealed by either the Government or the paramilitaries. For the former, concerns for national security in the present will outweigh the need for full disclosure. For the latter, present day political considerations will prevent full truth.

Everyone wants the truth. Over the next weeks there will be renewed debate about this matter. Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect success in obtaining the truth about our violent past.

  • Professor Brian M. Walker is a political historian and author of A Political History Of The Two Irelands: From Partition To Peace

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