William Matchett: A Press free and responsible may hold liberal democracy to account ... but it is the rule of law that binds it together
Big screen depictions of incidents and individuals from the Troubles are frequently partial. Thankfully, the judicial system operates to a higher standard, says William Matchett.
Treat others the way you’d want to be treated yourself is what my father drummed into me. It is about tolerating different views, honesty, decency, lawfulness and resisting bullies. In the context of the legacy of our past, when I look back on the headlines and films in August, I see little of this.
Let me start with a documentary on the civil rights movement. Here, Eamonn McCann blamed the creation of the Provisionals and the “armed struggle” on the RUC and unionist government at Stormont.
I agree with lots of what Mr McCann has said over the years, probably because my father was also a staunch socialist, a trade union leader, who detested discrimination against the working class and believed that his Catholic friends got a particularly raw deal. He also understood that bigots on both sides were the biggest barriers.
Yes, a unionist elite lorded it over a Catholic minority and the RUC overreacted to civil rights protests. But nationalist leaders embellished genuine grievances and got working-class Catholics to confront the police in generally sectarianising civil rights.
The net effect let the green genie out of the bottle with a deadly wish: destroy the state, rid it of the “Brits” and unify the island. No actor is fault-free.
If my father were still alive, he would put an arm around Eamonn and tell him. There is more to it than Mr McCann makes out. Even then, the Troubles would not have happened. Grievances do not bomb and shoot. People do. And fundamentalist ideology — not causes — radicalise. Unfortunately, we had both.
Jude Collins, a commentator regularly on the BBC, showed this on the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bombing. He believes the 29 people and unborn twins were not murdered, rationalising that the terrorists did not mean to kill. A blame undertone in his article whispers, “The cops should have evacuated everyone, anyway”. Missing in the analysis is 30 years of car-bomb carnage before Omagh by a sectarian and unpopular Provisional IRA ran by a few angry northerners with impeccable “Brit-hating” ancestry dating back to Cromwell.
Weeks later, a film opened in cinemas about a woman with such a pedigree. I, Dolours by Ed Moloney is a mini-biography, undeservedly flattering of IRA activist Dolours Price. As a portrait piece, understandably, there are no opposed views.
The movie is rooted in the Boston tapes, where Ed Moloney interviewed former terrorists. A journalist and a Special Branch handler are remarkably similar: they trade in truth-telling, protect sources and are always after the next big story.
There followed a PSNI investigation, resulting in a prominent republican being prosecuted and the arrest of Gerry Adams. Both in connection with the murder of widow and mother-of-10, Jean McConville, “disappeared” by the IRA in 1972. Mr Adams denied the allegations and was released without charge. In the film, Dolours Price implicated herself in the incident.
The widescreen prefers corrupt cop and savage squaddie stories, mirroring common themes in books and newspapers. Going against it attracts flak. Of comments aimed at me, not my arguments, outside of fanatical social media trolls, a couple come to mind.
Jude Collins took exception to my account of an IRA unit in Loughgall in 1987, shot dead by the SAS. He questioned if I had a “moral compass” and wondered if I was “feeling all right”. Of a presentation I gave, Mr Moloney blogged: “I don’t know how the audience felt at the end of his contribution, but if it was anything like myself, most of them probably wished they had stayed at home.” In concluding, he pitied the people that invited me to speak.
It was my dear and sadly missed friend, Sean O’Callaghan, who drew my attention to Mr Moloney’s comment. I will save his insight on this for another book, but he had a chuckle when I told him what my wife said: “The audience only had to suffer for 90 minutes. I get it all day, every day.”
Nuala O’Loan also used the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bombing to blame the RUC for not preventing it — a controversial change on what her investigation (as Police Ombudsman) had determined.
Hotly disputing this were first-hand witness accounts by two Special Branch detectives, who dealt with the anonymous call central to most blame. Both turned up for interview — only to be turned away.
Given that they were the focus of the severest criticism, the omission is incredible. Only last month did their testimony eventually come out, showing the information in the call referred to an attack three miles outside Omagh and not Omagh, as the Ombudsman stated. Not only does this refute much of the criticism in the original report, in itself it shatters Baroness O’Loan’s latest “preventable” claim.
Another film to open in August was The Ballymurphy Precedent, about soldiers slaughtering 10 innocent people in 1971: absent, it seems, current claims of UVF actions, earlier accounts and the inhospitable atmosphere days after internment.
The month ended with the police arresting journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. This was over sensitive Police Ombudsman documents used in the film, No Stone Unturned, a consequence of the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, reporting the alleged theft to the PSNI, who got Durham Constabulary to investigate.
In June 2016, Dr Maguire’s public statement blamed RUC officers for six men murdered by loyalist terrorists in Loughinisland in 1994. His finding used the word “collusion” that heavily implied the officers committed serious crimes.
A judicial review, still ongoing and soon to deliver final judgment, shows the public statement was based on a far larger investigation report, of which Dr Maguire wrote: “I forwarded a copy of the report to the Public Prosecution Service in September 2015 ... I did not believe any identifiable officer may have committed a criminal offence, but I wanted to satisfy myself that the PPS were afforded an opportunity to read the investigation report.” The Director of Public Prosecutions wrote back, confirming there was no evidence to prosecute.
This is a monumental fact completely lost in Dr Maguire’s public statement. Neither did the PPS inform the public. The investigation document is, effectively, the film’s script. Dr Maguire is in it. So is one of his investigators. They get crucial lines.
Had Dr Maguire kept this information private as well as he made his message public, stretched police resources would have stayed on the street at a significant saving for taxpayers.
Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney are in a fix that pits a journalist entitled to privileges to protect sources against a police officer lawfully obliged to investigate crime.
To them, I say this: be thankful the police use precise definitions of crime, fixed in law, and not woolly words like “collusion”; be thankful the police use evidence to prosecute, not supposition; be thankful that you cannot be condemned other than by a properly constituted court and your words will not be distorted.
Dr Maguire left the retired officers “utterly defenceless”, according to Mr Justice McCloskey in the judicial review.
A close look at August shows what stories from here make it to the big screen, how and why. Partial accounts dominate. By the time missing facts surface to the contrary, it is too late. Articles have been read. Movies seen. People’s minds made up. There are no apologies. No sense of wrong and no sign of it ending.
I am confident Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney expected — rightly — to be treated with a normal investigative approach. Why, then, were they content when those accused in their film were not?
William Matchett is the 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