Belfast Telegraph

Why are NI filmmakers not interested in hearing the police's side of the story?

Screen depictions of the Troubles are overwhelmingly nationalist, liberal and hostile to the forces of law and order, says former Special Branch detective William Matchett

Is anyone interested in our side? This is what a former Special Branch colleague (let's call him Peter) said to me recently. Speaking of a covert operation that netted a vicious terrorist cell, which had been difficult to stop up to that point, he recalled: "I fired at one of them. He fell. It was not a life-threatening hit. I could see the gun he had just fall out of his grasp. He thought I'd closed in to finish him off. That's what he'd have done to me. It looked like he still had the gun. I was the only one who saw how it really was. Killing him and getting away with it would have been easy. But that was not who we were. People need to know this."

I sent an article on this to a leading newspaper in the Republic of Ireland, as they had ran a colourful story about Peter's unit and I wanted to inform their readers with something beyond Wikipedia and An Phoblacht. I heard nothing back.

Tackling an intolerant ideology, like the Provisionals, is extremely hard, because it conditions much of society into believing its viewpoint, particularly people of the same religion, race, or ethnicity.

In the Troubles, police officers and soldiers risked everything. Not only could they lose their life, but their reputation. Defaming them did not end with their death.

Look at what happened to Captain Robert Nairac (28). For 40 years, and without a shred of evidence, he was painted as an evil executor of a sinister security policy. Vile rumours and sensationalist headlines went unchallenged to become most people's truth of the courageous soldier.

When it was exposed as fake news this year, I saw no apologies, or signs of regret, from his accusers and no consequences for peddling lies and untruths.

While the young Grenadier was named in public, this is not necessary to destroy a person's reputation. Tarnishing an incident, investigation, or the organisation is enough. Family, friends and former colleagues will know who it is.

Those who worked in intelligence - Special Branch - have been thrown to the wolves, quickly followed by CID officers and uniform commanders.

The upshot is that intelligence and security policy in general has been widely and unfairly misrepresented.

As with Robert Nairac, the Provos simply created the claims and repeated them.

And the naive regurgitation of this propaganda has played a considerable part in ensuring that gullible individuals, on both sides of our community, now believe that the intelligence-gathering operation, which underpinned the security work of both police and military, was fatally flawed and on a par with the acts of terrorism it was combating.

"Collusion" epitomises this. If the word "collusion" did not exist, critics of intelligence would have nothing to say.

To many in the mainstream media, not only is contesting "collusion" fraught with legal hazards, it is also journalistically unpopular, as it means swimming against the tide of security mythology that captivates many "security" commentators.

The trend has continued and is compounded by a fear of a Sinn Fein party used to getting its way, which is a reason why there are so few hard-hitting articles, or films, about the republican movement.

The ideological intolerance stretches to films. Since writing Secret Victory, I have become familiar with the filmmaking world and, at the moment, there is no interest in these islands in a film that explains the security perspective.

Where funding is available, it is for a project like the Maze escape, or Bobby Sands, that shows the Provos favourably, or No Stone Unturned, that promotes a "collusion" storyline in the UVF murders of six innocent Catholics in Loughinisland in 1994.

No Stone Unturned is the latest and is, essentially, a Police Ombudsman investigation cinematised. The investigation is subject to a judicial review next month.

With this in mind, it is not appropriate to comment on No Stone Unturned to any great degree, other than to raise some general points.

I was surprised that people who were not prosecuted for the murders are named. In other words, if a movie was made of Robert Nairac, is it right to name the people in the bar he was abducted from?

The film is made for the big screen, an international audience and is well done.

The filmmaker, Alex Gibney, is a master of his art. I imagine most people will come away from it impressed and asking: how on earth can the state explain this?

I know some of the officers involved. They are decent people with a strong moral compass. They know right from wrong. There is not a sectarian bone in their body. Contrary to what the film claims, if they could have stopped the attack, they would have.

Everything Special Branch did was geared to protecting life. This is what I was taught and it is what they were taught. It is what we did. Everyone could not be saved, but it was not for the want of trying.

The character of the officers and what motivated them is unexplored. Indeed, it is supplanted by a cameo role by Danny Morrison.

Let me briefly show what was never going to feature in the analysis of a Provo propagandist. The last thing Special Branch wanted, or needed, were Protestants murdering Catholics. It made their job much more difficult and took precious resources away from countering the main protagonist - the Provisionals. Defeating the Provos was the state's main aim, because this would end the Troubles.

Of the film, the Irish News reported on November 3: "The SDLP and Sinn Fein have called for action" and that former SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie "said the Irish government needed to intervene". In 2011 Margaret Ritchie described the RUC as "rotten to the core".

Nationalism's response is predictable. On one hand, Sinn Fein excused IRA murders of police officers and, on the other, the SDLP, from John Hume's leadership onward, refused to support the police.

Trapped by this legacy, it is in the political interests of both to continue to condemn the RUC.

Of the Republic of Ireland aspect, I am minded of a detective who had travelled to Dublin in the early-1970s to convince a court to extradite a terrorist suspect wanted for multiple murders in Belfast.

The court refused, ruling the offences were political and not criminal. Where this soothed nationalism, it inflamed loyalism.

I do not raise these issues to deflect from the atrocity, or sectarian depravity, of the UVF, but to highlight the difficulty in solving a complex Troubles-type problem.

Everything is interconnected, but little pulls in the same direction. I get a sense that Dublin accepts it made bad calls, but nationalists in "the north" do not. Most of all, however, Loughinisland was a product of a Provo strategy to sectarianise the situation by pulling loyalists into the fight. Incidents of this kind pushed nationalists closer to the Provos and their hardline views. It is how violent insurgent networks operate. The big beneficiary of incidents like Loughinisland was the Provos.

I am not suggesting Special Branch, or the RUC, were perfect. Some officers - orange and green - let the side down. But they were few and far between.

For protecting life and preventing attacks, it is by far the world's best example and most human rights compliant for such a situation.

This is what I do for the Edward M Kennedy Institute - identify what works in a nation afflicted by terrorism in order to stop the violence, a major part of which is to understand the threat.

Yet even here there is intolerance from those who see it as exporting a "dirty war" and link this to some controversy in that nation.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of troubled hotspots and why they need help. It was such a correlation that annoyed Peter and caused me to write to the Irish newspaper in order to show what his unit was truly like.

And, for the record, when people like Peter confronted armed and dangerous terrorists in covert operations, the result, 99% of the time, were arrests. This is remarkable. Nowhere in the world have I seen anything this restrained.

My sympathy for the innocent victims of terrorism is matched by my disdain of people wrongly accused.

What happened at Loughinisland was dreadful, but two wrongs do not make a right.

The narrative the "peace process" has produced (and filmmakers have popularised) is nationalist, liberal and profoundly anti-police.

In itself, this is not a negative. It only becomes negative when there is no balance, which is the case here. So, Peter, to answer your question: no.

William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA. He is a senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Prevention at Maynooth University

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