Belfast Telegraph

We need to hear Troubles voices, not silence them

An ex-Army intelligence officer can give evidence openly in London but not in Dublin. Just what are the authorities afraid of? Henry McDonald reports

Two public inquiries on either side of the Irish Sea - the same witness speaking openly at one and being gagged at the other. This is the Kafkaesque scenario facing the former Army intelligence officer Ian Hurst.

At the start of last week, Hurst gave open, public evidence in front of the Leveson inquiry in London, which is investigating press standards following the phone hacking scandals last summer.

The ex-member of the Army's secretive Force Research Unit (FRU) had been the target of phone and computers hackers working for News International.

Hurst's evidence concerned the hacking of his computer using a so-called 'Trojan' virus after he had been outed as a whistleblower.

Hurst is famous (or notorious) for providing critical information on two scandals involving the security forces during the Troubles: the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and the exposé of the agent known as Stakeknife operating within the IRA.

Among others Hurst provided evidence of how most of the UDA unit involved in murdering Finucane in front of his family were working for one or more branch of the security forces at the time.

In relation to the revelation that Freddie Scappaticci - the IRA's chief spy hunter - was himself a long-term British agent, Hurst played a central role in bringing this to light.

Given his background and knowledge of the undercover war against the IRA and loyalists (which often entailed the morally dubious practice of allowing state agents to commit crimes up to and including murder), Hurst became the focus of attention by the News of the World.

Essentially, this meant spying on Hurst, ironically using a former colleague in the now-disbanded FRU to infiltrate and read the ex-soldier's email system - presumably to glean what he was saying to journalists, politicians, human rights organisations and campaign groups about the Stakeknife scandal.

During his testimony to Leveson Hurst repeated allegations aired a few months earlier in the BBC's Panorama programme about how the Irish end of the News of the World had spied on him illegally.

Hurst is convinced that such practices - directed not only at himself, but also at the likes of former Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain - posed a serious threat to both national security and the security of individuals working in the twilight world of intelligence.

For those in the Republic observing another tribunal currently running in Dublin, the contrast between Hurst speaking freely and unfettered was glaring.

Hurst wants to give evidence in person to the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin, which is exploring how the Provisional IRA killed RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989.

The inquiry is investigating allegations a garda mole provided the IRA with information to target the two police officers for murder. Yet Hurst has been told he can only deliver his testimony in Dublin behind closed doors, away from the media and the public.

Hurst claims to have evidence of Stakeknife's role in the Breen/Buchanan killing and how the murder-plot was known to the highest-ranking members of the IRA and Sinn Fein at the time.

This he contends, is due to the fact that Stakeknife was also aware of the plan to ambush and kill the policemen on the Louth/south Armagh border.

In turn, Hurst has refused to go to Dublin unless he is allowed to speak in the open and under the scrutiny of the media like every other witness.

He has stated he believes the tribunal's refusal to let him do so is politically motivated; that this reticence flows from the official policy of protecting key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process. There is a further contrast between the strictures the Smithwick Tribunal wishes to impose on Hurst and the way it treated other recent witnesses - no more so than the founder of the Real IRA, Michael McKevitt.

The inquiry even moved out of its usual location in Dublin's Blackhall Place to another location close by to hear McKevitt's evidence - the Republic's heavily-guarded Special Criminal Court, where terrorist trials have been heard since the Troubles erupted.

McKevitt was the Provisional IRA's so-called 'quartermaster-general' at the time of the Breen-Buchanan murders and lived in the north Louth area not far from Dundalk Garda Station.

He was a leading figure in the Provisionals in the late-1980s and would have had knowledge of many IRA operations in the border region.

Under the glare of the gathered media in open court, the convicted Real IRA member was cross-examined over allegations that he benefited from Garda tip-offs about raids on his home and that, implicitly, he and the local Provisionals had some 'friendly' police officers in the frontier zone.

The brother-in-law of the IRA icon Bobby Sands was afforded the opportunity to strongly deny such collusion existed which, of course, goes to the heart of Smithwick's investigation.

However, an Army intelligence officer who ran operations to counter the activities of McKevitt and his ilk is offered no such opportunity to speak in public. This begs an important question in relation to the whole nature of the Troubles' secret war: just what are the authorities in Dublin afraid of in regard to Hurst talking in public under privilege?

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