The new legislation will establish what is described as an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, under the leadership of the former lord chief justice for Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan KC.¹ This body will have the power to grant immunity from prosecution for a Troubles-related death and prevent investigations into related incidents. The legislation will also end all new inquests or inquiries into deaths arising from the conflict, and prevent the bringing of new civil claims related to events of the period.
According to Britain’s governing Tory party, this act of Parliament is designed to provide greater information, accountability and acknowledgement to victims and families. As with many claims made by British governments, this one needs to be treated with an enormous degree of scepticism. And not just because it has been condemned by every political party in the North, as well as the Dublin government, but because it attempts to steer the focus away from where it should be.
Knowing full well that offering immunity from prosecution would not only cause a storm of public anger but would also focus attention on individuals rather than the state, this was a subtle piece of dissembling. It repeated the long-promoted and misleading narrative that the “Irish Troubles” were caused by disaffected, unbalanced, almost congenitally violent persons resorting to terrorism in what amounted to something akin to an aggravated crime wave.
The convenient corollary to this was the story routinely spun of a generous and patient British state, along with its northern Irish allies, struggling heroically to maintain law and order and keep the peace. Incidentally, this is an interpretation quietly supported by the southern Irish establishment, and is in part the reason for Dublin objecting to the new law.
In keeping with this “official” British narrative was a cleverly promoted line that this legacy legislation was actually designed to protect old solders. It was necessary, the law’s authors claimed, to prevent what they described as vexatious claims and accusations against military veterans. This pitch was particularly popular with Britain’s right-wing media and Tory MPs and their voters. Not surprisingly, the measure gained the approval of the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Association. All very helpful too, don’t forget, for this chaotic and embattled Tory government.
In practical terms, however, the Independent Commission will have little impact among former members of republican or loyalist armed organisations. What benefit would accrue to those men or women for publicising their actions? If sufficient evidence to secure a conviction hasn’t been obtained in the quarter century since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there is little prospect now of fresh information emerging to see charges being preferred.
There would be, moreover, a real concern among former members of these organisations that meeting the commission’s requirements for immunity might involve identifying fellow-participants, something that would risk incurring the wrath of former colleagues who still wish to remain anonymous.
What, therefore, is the rationale for a measure that has annoyed so many in Ireland, and even among those usually sympathetic to London’s decrees? By introducing this legislation the British government is determined to achieve two connected objectives. The immediate intention is to halt a series of legal investigations into the lethal actions of former members of the British army during the course of the conflict. The second, and most important, albeit related, aim, is to ensure that there is no detailed analysis and examination of the decades-long involvement of Britain’s clandestine secret services in Ireland.
Crucial from a British standpoint is the need to obscure how and from where these agencies derive their authorisation. Because if they are not officially and explicitly mandated by the Cabinet and, ultimately, Parliament they are in effect acting above and beyond the elected executive.
And therein lies a matter that has ramifications far beyond the dreary steeples of the Six Counties. If the actions of the Crown’s security services in the North of Ireland were to be exposed there would inevitably follow a series of penetrating questions relating to the very nature of governance in Britain.
Over the past decade or more there has emerged an increasing amount of evidence of the murky and often murderous activities of the British secret services in the Six Counties. With their manipulation of the paedophile network operating from Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast,² colluding with the Glenanne gang, facilitating the import of loyalist arms from South Africa, and overseeing the actions of the IRA informer Freddie Scappaticci, the story is one of an incredibly powerful entity with a licence to operate beyond what is deemed to be the law.³
Were Troubles-related investigations to continue through inquests, civil cases, court hearings and other investigations there is no telling what might eventually emerge, if only by accident. Moreover, this would surely raise the question whether, if that intense level of covert manipulation can happen in Northern Ireland (constitutionally still an integral part of the United Kingdom), might the same not happen in Britain itself? There still remain, after all, a few journalists prepared to fearlessly tell the truth and who are unwilling to be intimidated.
The existence of a “deep state” in Britain is not mere idle or conspiratorial speculation. There is an inquiry going on at present into the role of undercover police infiltrating perfectly legal and relatively harmless protest groups. According to the Guardian, between 1968 and 2010 undercover police spied on more than a thousand (yes, one thousand) political groups in Britain.⁴ Left-wing and progressive organisations were, for the most part, the target of these covert operations.
Indeed, might one of these more recent covert operations have been conducted against a more significant target than petty protest groups? Might the objective have been to ensure that the occupant of number 10 Downing Street would continue to turn a blind eye towards the “deep state”?⁵ Having experienced the lengths to which that underground network was prepared to go in Ireland, it is not altogether outlandish speculation.
Whether true or not, one thing is clear. We don’t just need to get rid of the Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill: we need to break the connection with those shady elements promoting it and establish a genuinely independent Irish democracy.
Gov UK, “Secretary of State outlines next steps in NI Legacy Bill,” 18 July 2023
Chris Moore, “How MI5 protected child sex abusers in the notorious Kincora Boys’ Home,” Sunday World, 4 December 2022.
Jennifer O’Leary, “Army’s IRA spy Freddie Scappaticci admitted killing suspected informer,” BBC News, 30 May 2023.
Rob Evans, “‘Spy cops’ scandal: what is it and why was public inquiry set up?” Guardian, 29 June 2023.
Andrew Murray, “Is the ‘deep state’ trying to undermine Corbyn?” New Statesman, 19 September 2018.
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney