As an academic researcher with a strong interest in the current political situation in Ireland, north and south, I have had the incredible good fortune to have developed a network of contacts within all organisations who were involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland. These include former members of the British and Irish governments, former members of the British Army, former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - including ex-Special Branch officers, former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment as well as current and ex-members of the various loyalist and republican organisations that have existed and fought their own versions of the "war" in recent decades.
Without wanting to delve too deeply into historiography, or at least my own view of it, I believe that it is absolutely essential that we - those of us who seek answers about the troubled past - prioritise the need to understand what happened and to try to explain why it happened. I have made no secret of my view that too many contemporary inquiries into the past go too far down the "what" road and not far enough down the "why" road. Given its relevance, collusion is but one controversial aspect of Northern Ireland's past where the "why" question is left hanging, at what I believe to be a significant cost.
In our book Times of Troubles: Britain's War in Northern Ireland, Ian S. Wood and I attempted to engage the issue of "why" as far as was possible. We pursued former soldiers and asked them questions about highly controversial issues. Without their honesty and perspective, our book would have been considerably less valuable than I believe it to be. Future generations can read the views of those interviewed and make an attempt to understand the situations that individuals found themselves in and why they acted in the way that they did.
There has long been a culture of finger pointing in Irish history, it is not unique to Ireland of course, but it is never more relevant than the "what-about-ery" that raises its head every time a controversial issue from the past is brought up. I believe this to be a symptom of people's unwillingness to at least try to understand why other people acted as they did. I make an attempt to offer explanation of why people acted as they did in everything I write. It may not necessarily heal any wounds, but if it furthers our understanding of something, then I believe my research has done the job that I intended it to do.
It would not be possible to offer this perspective without the people I have spoken to since I began seriously researching in 2004. At a guess, I would say that I have spoken to something in the region of 100 people since then. One of those people is Gerard Hodgins. It was thanks to Richard O'Rawe that I first met Gerard in 2010.
Often, your first interview with a new contact is held on "neutral" territory, but occasionally, people will invite you to their homes to talk to them. Gerard is one such source. He is unfailingly generous with his time and hospitality. You will not be more than ten seconds through the door of his flat in West Belfast before you are offered a cup of tea. He is also unfailingly helpful. As Richard O'Rawe had done to enable me to meet Gerard, so too did Gerard help me meet other people who had an interesting perspective on the recent past. Indeed, it was through Gerard's recommendation that I was able to meet and talk to Marian Price, who gave me what I consider to have been the most interesting interview of my career.
The research I have produced since 2010 has only been enhanced by my contact with Gerard Hodgins. I believe him to be a person of integrity who has shared with me his views on a number of issues relevant to the current political situation in Ireland, as well as the recent past, and that by sharing his views on these issues he has contributed to future understanding of it.
In the Sunday World on 15th December, journalist Paula Mackin suggested that Gerard was the finance officer for the Continuity IRA who was now a front for "dissident" groups in council elections. I have to ask: if "dissident" groups are fighting council elections with the encouragement of Gerard Hodgins, that's a good thing, surely? Much better than planting car bombs in the city centre, anyway.
I never felt, in any of our meetings, that Gerard Hodgins was being dishonest about either his view of the political history of Ireland or, significantly, his role in the Provisional IRA. It's a real shame, from the perspective of history, that others within republicanism are not as willing.