One word kept coming to the fore in press reports when the Stevens report into collusion between British state forces and Loyalist death squads was released. That word was astounding.
The report was in fact astounding in all sorts of directions and dimensions.
It was astounding to have a representative of the British state openly admit the involvement of state forces in the sectarian murder of Catholic civilians.
It was astounding to have an open admission of the involvement of state forces in the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane – an officer of their own court system.
It was astounding to have the British state openly admit the involvement of a senior member of the British Government of the time – Douglas Hogg – in smearing Finucane and other lawyers representing republican prisoners.
Even more astounding was the frank admission that elements of the local police – the RUC – and British army undertook a campaign of intimidation against the investigating team – including an arson attack on an office which successfully destroyed many files.
But there are other elements that make all that went before pale into insignificance. The first is the idea that we have seen the Stevens report. Only 19 pages – just over 1 for each of the 13 years of the investigation – have been released. The thousands of pages of the real report are to be buried in the innermost chambers of the state. Only 2 deaths out of thousands – that of Pat Finucane and Brian Lambert (a Protestant student mistaken for a Catholic) are dealt with. The solution, according to Stevens, is a managerial one. Simply a change of structures and better record-keeping will bring to an end decades when the British tore up any pretence of legitimacy, unleashed the worst forms of state terror and fed lifeblood to the Frankenstein monster of the Loyalist death squads
In fact the Stevens statement is a whitewash, immediately dismissed by the Finucane family. Hanging over Steven’s shoulder is the memory of John Stalker, the last British Police officer to investigate state crime in Ireland. He became the object of a criminal investigation and retired under a cloud. The Stevens team operate with a clear understanding of the constraints on them. One reason for the detail on the Finucane killing is that The evidence of state collusion is overwhelming. The majority of those involved in the planning and execution of the crime were in the pay of the British and a number have made public confessions of their role. Two of the most prominent figures died recently. William Stobie was killed by the loyalist gangs and Brian Nelson, who oversaw the murder of countless Catholics while employed by the state, died of apparently natural causes while in hiding under state protection.
Stevens’ thesis is that this was a problem of out-of control agents and their handlers. The solution was better management, communication and record-keeping. A few middle-ranking officers should possibly be the subject of criminal investigation that would predictably go nowhere. With the RUC’s name changed to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) all would be well.
This nowhere corresponds to the facts. The sectarian killings were all of a piece with a state ‘shoot to kill’ policy, torture (which British cabinet documents released after 30 years, recently revealed to have been government policy), the Belfast and Derry Pogroms, led by state forces, which unleashed the present troubles, internment, Bloody Sunday, emergency powers and no-jury courts.
The report does not correspond to Irish history either. That history is of British determination to protect their interests in Ireland, of setting up a grubby sectarian state to divide the Irish working class and of regularly unleashing sectarian gangs on the Catholic population – in fact for most of the history of the partitioned northern state the gangs wore state uniforms as ‘B’ and ‘C’ special constables.
The publication of the report poses a number of difficulties for the British. Nationalist workers will not accept Steven’s fairy tales that this is a problem of a past time. They know that a more recent murder, that of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, was the result of collusion and that investigators complained that the RUC members questioned about this killing were uncooperative, drunk and threatening. They know that there is continuing collusion to placate and buy off Loyalist factions. This makes the idea that the Good Friday agreement should be redrawn to demand the disbandment of the IRA highly unpopular.
A further problem is the sectarian reaction of Unionism. David Trimble, the unionist leader who collapsed the local Stormont administration on mere suspicion of IRA intelligence activity, sees no crisis in the findings of collusion in sectarian murder – it can be dealt with by a parliamentary sub-committee. A close associate of Trimbles, Ken Maginnis, repeats the charge that the dead Finucane was an IRA associate and, in language reminiscent of the American deep South and the ‘uppitty nigra’ accused Finucane of being too prominent and ‘drawing attention to himself’.
The problem here is that the British solution to the Irish problem is that these bigots return to coalition with Sinn Fein. It really is difficult to see any scale of republican surrender that would make this a stable solution.
There is however a problem of response. The Finucane family have called for a public inquiry. They are aware of the danger of further whitewash reports and call for international figures to be involved. In the past the demand for inquiry has been a favoured demand of the Irish bourgeoisie as a method of ‘closure’ that would firmly push all sorts of unpleasant questions into the past. It’s high point was British agreement to a judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday led by Lord Saville. It has become clear that the most likely outcome is yet another blurring of what was a pretty straightforward massacre of civilians, witnessed by thousands including TV and print journalists. Very recently Saville has indicated that he will give exception to state witnesses where intelligence issues are involved – something that would make a judicial inquiry meaningless.
The Irish Bourgeoisie have now pulled back. Dennis Bradley, a former priest, now a leader of the police authority and one of the architects of Republican involvement in the Good Friday agreement, now argues against further inquiry. However there is a left critique also– that further inquiry which leads to further whitewash will simply demoralise. What is key is that we demand that responsibility rest at the top of the chain of command, with the British Government. We should also recognise the central illusion of the Good Friday agreement –that Britain means well in Ireland – has been exposed for those that care to notice. British killing in Ireland will stop when Britain leaves Ireland.
Note: members of 1st para now hold leadership of British forces in Iraq where they have repeated their methods in Derry on a bigger scale.