Programmes such as BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight On The Troubles: A Secret History are the closest we’ll come to separating fact from fiction in our turbulent past, argues Robin Wilson
The compelling BBC Northern Ireland series Spotlight On The Troubles was subtitled ‘A Secret History’. Yet, its subtext really was the truth commission Northern Ireland has never had, but should, as Amnesty International, supported by many victims and survivors, recommended six years ago.
Watching as a professional journalist the first thing that needs to be said about the series was that it was searingly honest and objective, probing and poking for the truth in the best traditions of investigative journalism.
Some of the region’s best and brightest were involved in its production, and only a public service broadcaster like the BBC would be willing to invest the huge time and resources needed for such a massive project.
The Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff once said that truth commissions limit the scope for “permissible lies”.
The nearest thing Northern Ireland has had to one is David Park’s excellent novel The Truth Commission, but truth has never matched fiction, because, as Amnesty complained in 2013, neither the UK Government nor Northern Ireland’s political parties have wanted it to see the light of day. And Spotlight On The Troubles showed why.
The former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police John Stevens confirmed, on the basis of his three inquiries in Northern Ireland (one of which was mysteriously disrupted by a fire at its headquarters near Carrickfergus), that collusion had indeed taken place between soldiers and police officers and loyalist paramilitaries engaged in sectarian murder campaigns.
The series evidenced several instances of such collusion. It highlighted the role of undercover Army units, such as the Force Research Unit, and of the British intelligence service MI5 in running agents in the paramilitaries, though the journalists were unable to gain access to what they revealed at the end to be a secret store of relevant MI5 documents.
It was frequently claimed during the violence by UK ministers that the British state representatives only ever operated within the law in Northern Ireland – such assertions the series demonstrated to be risible.
But nor did the paramilitaries escape the fullest censure – especially those among their leaders who reinvented themselves as “peacemakers”.
As first revealed by another tenacious investigative journalist Ed Moloney in his 2002 book, A Secret History Of The IRA, Gerry Adams was responsible for the setting up of the “unknowns” unit of the organisation in the 1970s in west Belfast to “disappear” alleged civilian informers, such as a Protestant mother-of-10 Jean McConville. The idea was to avoid the opprobrium the IRA would incur by its role in the executions becoming known.
Jean McConville’s body was only found by accident decades later, buried on a beach in Co Louth. Adams, often a loquacious media interviewee, refused to co-operate with the BBC NI series.
As for the late Martin McGuinness, he was – as again Moloney first revealed – “northern commander” of the IRA when northern command authorised the “human bomb” tactic.
In 1990 Patsy Gillespie, a civilian cook at an Army base in Derry, was strapped into his van with a bomb and forced to drive to a checkpoint, where he and five soldiers were remotely blown up while his family were held hostage by the IRA.
Both these sets of actions constituted war crimes under the Rome Statute of 1998 – coincidentally the year of the Belfast Agreement, where Adams and McGuinness were prominent at the talks table – establishing the International Criminal Court.
The loyalist paramilitaries came across in the series as unapologetic thugs. Hannah Arendt, attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann for Nazi war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961, famously observed that he represented the “banality of evil” – and so did they.
They were the perfect foot-soldiers for those whom political scientists now call “ethnopolitical entrepreneurs”, leaders who exploit division to rise to power. And, of course, the Northern Ireland example par excellence was Ian Paisley.
Not only did the Spotlight team give chapter and verse on Ulster Resistance, the outfit Paisley and his then DUP sidekick and successor as First Minister Peter Robinson, established to resist the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the series also documented the extent of Paisley’s involvement in the initiation of the violence in 1969, when UVF bombs deliberately engendered a climate of fear.
Paisley, the programme showed, provided funding for this campaign – belying his characteristic trope of denying that any responsibility could ever attach to him for the violence enacted by his supporters.
So, no wonder we have yet to see a Northern Ireland truth commission, despite the positive experience of more than 20 such bodies around the world – principally in Latin America – in recent decades.
Confusion has often been caused by the usage “South African-style truth commission”, as if that were a model, when, in fact, the immunity it conceded to perpetrators from the-then still-powerful white minority who confessed to their crimes made it an outlier. Truth and justice for victims and survivors can – and should – be pursued in tandem.
Nor has the Northern Ireland “peace process” become a model internationally, despite those who came to advocate this with latter-day missionary zeal.
For, as Spotlight documented, it in no way broke with the abrogation of universal norms – especially of human rights and the rule of law – which characterised the preceding violence.
It merely replaced attempted repression of the IRA by the British state with a realpolitik process of private deals with the Adams/McGuinness leadership.
Which leaves us with the moral quagmire we remain in today, with no democracy at Stormont and with all the sectarian actors continuing to treat politics as the continuation of war by other means, fighting over the narrative of the Troubles.
At least Spotlight On The Troubles has narrowed the scope for their permissible lies.
Dr Robin Wilson is an expert adviser to the Council of Europe on intercultural integration and author of The Northern Ireland Experience Of Conflict And Agreement: A Model For Export? (Manchester UniversityPress). He is currently general editor of Social Europe
With many thanks to the: Belfast Telegraph and Robin Wilson for the original story