Christopher Owens has just finished a new book on Collusion in the North. The passage of time reveals so much about a society.
In the post 'end of history' environment, mainstream society has become much more vocal in their questioning of both security services and political figures. Rightly so. The blurring of ideologies in the political arena, as well as the revelations of innocent people have served time for crimes fitted to them by the police have left people disillusioned and willing to listen to those who have fought for years for justice.
Of course, in this country, we have our own insidious brand of institutionalised violence.
In 2019, it's commonly accepted that there was (at best) a loose connection with members of the security services and loyalist paramilitaries or (at worst) direct collusion and direction from the former to the latter. This is quite a step from thirty years ago, where such claims were routinely derided as "republican propaganda" by the same media outlets who would state that "Some fans picked pockets of victims...urinated on the brave cops...beat up PC giving kiss of life" at Hillsborough.
So there has been a recent spate of collusion related books and documentaries, with this being the most recent.
Counterinsurgency and Collusion specifically focuses on the period beginning in the late eighties when loyalists had effectively declared all out war on republicans and their families. No one can deny the efficiency and success of the campaign, despite it revealing an even more ugly, nihilistic side to loyalist violence. However, loyalists will argue that the killings of part time RUC/UDR soldiers in their homes were equally nihilistic and fuelled the notion of Protestants being "ethnically cleansed" and a lot of this was to do with their positions in tight knit communities. Seen as family men and pillars of the community, the overlap didn't matter to republicans. They simply saw a uniform.
These views are important to consider, and one that McGovern spends a bit of time establishing. This is because the area of East Tyrone/Mid Ulster where the majority of the deaths occurred saw an overlap of roles and people living in close proximity to intended targets and members of the security services. In this context, it's not a surprise that collusion could occur.
Retelling the details of the cases involving the likes of the Cappagh Three, John Davey, Liam Ryan and Roseanne Mallon, the sequence of events are laid out concisely and with the starkest detail. New interviews with the families of those killed make for heart breaking reading at times, regardless if one agrees with the violent republican path some chose to tread on.
Frankly, it's impossible not to be moved by the tales of people like Patrick Shanahan. Continually harassed because he was a member of Sinn Fein, it seems the RUC thought that membership of a political party gaining electoral success was enough to brand him 'IRA' without any proof, and that somehow justified their actions.
This is an angle that has never been explored the way it should. A lot of academics and journalists seem to accept that the blurred boundaries between Sinn Fein and the IRA meant that the security forces could be forgiven for thinking the worst about someone. But what about the ones with no connections at all who ended up listed in documents which "went missing"? Was it because they lived close by to a prominent IRA member ("you were seen talking to xxxxx, so you're clearly in the same ASU"), was it because they were watching a parade ("you were seen at an IRA commemoration, so you're clearly an active republican")?
An endless rabbit hole akin to the one held by astronomers who believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe.
There will be those that will read this and think that, ultimately, the ends justified the means: the Provos have become a well armed old boys' club, Sinn Fein are now comfortably in power and have no intention of implementing anything vaguely socialistic in policy. Sure, a few innocent people died but, as Aimable Pelissier is reported to have said: "One cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs."
Such thinking among ordinary people is rather disturbing. By either not seeing (or choosing to ignore) the bigger picture, these thinkers give the state justification to do whatever is necessary to maintain control. Roy Hattersley once remarked that one should "Never underestimate the British establishment's ruthless determination to destroy its enemies", and that applies to everything. If you don't, at the very least, question what the implications are for a democracy to use such methods, then don't be surprised if you find that the arms of the state are pointing at you one day.
Unfortunately, McGovern doesn't help his case at times by citing works that have been utterly discredited, such as The Committee (once contextualised by Ed Moloney as beginning when author:
McPhilemy ... took the Stranraer ferry ... arrived and not far outside Larne ... picked up a hitchhiker who told him this story about a secret committee of unionists who were directing things. Thus started his book and all else that followed
And Joe Tiernan's The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings, which has been described by Balaclava Street as "...an amateurish self-published work with some suspect sourcing, to put it in polite terms." While he does not lean heavily upon them (and indeed, he does note that the allegations presented in both are dubious) their presence in the footnotes and further reading section is uncomfortable. Maybe it's an attempt to be as comprehensive as possible, but this merely gives ammunition to detractors.
As well as this, despite regularly citing the De Silva report, McGovern barely looks at the black propaganda that was emanating from MI5 in the late eighties. One section of the report states that:
The Security Service used a variety of methods and conduits through which to disseminate the propaganda. The nature of the propaganda being disseminated varied ... In other instances, the propaganda was targeted more directly at discrediting specific PIRA figures.
I would have thought this was an integral part of counterinsurgency, as well placed stories would have both turned less informed readers against republicans, and isolate ones who were considered to be a threat to the state. As well as this, the De Silva report makes it clear that (in relation to Douglas Hogg's comments about solicitors):
... the manner ... indicated an attitude or mindset within the RUC at the time which led them to be predisposed against solicitors representing republican paramilitaries ... All the evidence I have seen suggests that the RUC were fully aware, and indeed intended, that Mr Hogg should put their views in that regard into the public domain.
Surely this was worthy of discussion, especially in the opening chapters where the necessary background and context is introduced to the reader?
In conclusion, by examining this period of time, weighing up the context with the personal stories and allowing these three elements to do most of the talking, McGovern has helped to move this debate out of the begrimed, far-flung 1970's and into our very recent history, where the people involved are more than likely still alive and have questions to answer.
Mark McGovern, 2019, Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland. Pluto Press ISBN-13: 978-0745338996
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.