Truth a one-way street for evasive Gerry Adams
Garda Jerry McCabe may be dead, but questions posed by his murder remain to be answered
Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30
The main BBC news bulletins on Thursday afternoon led with the finding by Michael Maguire, police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, that collusion between elements of the State security services and loyalist paramilitaries was a "significant feature" in the 1994 Loughinisland attack.
That was the night six Catholic men were murdered in the Co Down village's Heights Bar as they watched Ireland play Italy in the World Cup. Dr Maguire says that at least one suspect in the attack by the Ulster Volunteer Force was a police informant.
With the toxic in/out EU referendum dominating the British news agenda, it was a striking expression of the significance of this story. Northern Ireland rarely excites that much interest outside its own borders, not even in Dublin, which is only 100 miles from Belfast and has been directly affected by the conflict. Dr Maguire's report reminds us that the past is not a foreign country, whatever the cliché says, but the place that still informs and shapes us.
Gerry Adams knows that better than most. He's been having a bad week because of it. Most weeks are bad weeks for the Sinn Fein President these days. There's no particular reason why that should be so. The party that he leads may have failed to make the expected breakthrough at the recent election, but it's still a substantial force in the Dail, and another election may be on its way sooner rather than later. There should be a mood of energy, not stasis, but there's something within that holds them back. What could it possibly be, Gerry?
He was having a particularly bad week because of the memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary since the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe. Of course, we're not supposed to call it murder, but most people agree with Ann McCabe, who said again this week that "it was plain murder, it wasn't manslaughter".
Ann attracts loyalty and respect across the country for her dogged and dignified refusal to accept the nonsense routinely peddled about her husband's death, so when she expresses a belief that Gerry Adams has not told everything he knows about that savage attack, people listen. "He knew from day one who they were," she said again this week. "And he knew what operation they were on. It was sanctioned by the people he represents. The IRA, his comrades."
If he hadn't made it his immediate business to find out who was responsible, after all, he'd have been shirking his responsibility. Likewise, if the Irish State had been involved in the murder of a police officer 20 years ago, there's no doubt he'd now be demanding that those with information come clean.
So he has a problem. Should loyalty to the IRA come first, or his duty to the State, both as a private citizen and a political leader? That he continues to be haunted by these questions, holding back his party's progress as a result, is an inevitable consequence of who and what he is.
SF finds this concentration on what its leader knows unfair. 'Move on' is the mantra. 'The past is the past. What matters now is the future.'
But what then of the recent appearance in court by loyalist Winston 'Winkie' Rae, charged with the sectarian murder more than 20 years ago of two Catholics? Should that be left in the past too? Should those who demand the truth about collusion also just leave these issues behind? SF would never say that.
Adams' own response to the revelations about Loughinisland was to demand that more attention be given to "exposing the depth of collusion involving British state forces and unionist paramilitaries," adding without irony "the British state put the protection of informants before the lives of citizens".
Republicans hardly have the moral authority to demand the truth of what was done to them whilst withholding information about what they did to others. The truth is not a one-way street.
Central to this issue is that the British state did not collude exclusively with loyalists. The IRA was riddled with informers too. Some, such as Denis Donaldson, the SF special adviser later murdered after being exposed as a spy, appeared to be playing both sides. Similar allegations have been made against many senior republican figures.
Last week came the announcement that the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire is to head up an inquiry into 'Stakeknife', an informer identified as Freddie Scappaticci, head of the Provos' so-called Nutting Squad, responsible for the torture and murder of at least 53 suspected informers between 1978 and 1995, though the suspicion was there from the start that 'Scap' was only exposed to shield more crucial informants higher up in SF/IRA.
Cases to be examined anew include that of Martin McGartland, a petty criminal who agreed to infiltrate the IRA and provide evidence to his handlers, but who was eventually discovered and taken to a flat in West Belfast to be interrogated and shot. It later transpired that Special Branch had McGartland under surveillance that day, from the moment he was 'arrested' by the IRA inside a SF office, and that he could have been rescued. Nothing was done. McGartland, thankfully, managed to escape by himself and still believes that saving his life may have been less important to his handlers than protecting the identity of their other informants in the republican movement.
He now lives in England and has taken legal action against MI5 for failing to protect him, amongst other serious complaints.
There is an obvious dilemma here. Fighting terrorism needs intelligence; realistically, that can only come from informers being given immunity from prosecution for their own misdeeds in return for information.
That made for a murky war and people undoubtedly died as a result - but many lives were also saved. Among them was that of Gerry Adams himself. When the British Army discovered through a loyalist informant that there was a plot to kill the SF leader, it set up its own operation to thwart the attack. When loyalists started plotting the next hit on Adams, the army encouraged its informants in their ranks to suggest instead the name of solicitor Pat Finucane, who was regarded by them as a senior IRA figure. He was subsequently gunned down in his own hallway.
Sir Desmond De Silva's report into that murder concluded "that the intelligence-led security response to the Troubles did play a significant role in constraining all terrorist organisations, to the extent that they were forced to realise their aims were not achievable by violent means".
There is further reason to believe that the British were equally influential in shifting SF towards a position of a united Ireland by peaceful means long before that became the party's official policy. The Troubles certainly didn't stop just because loyalists and republicans decided out of the goodness of their hearts that enough was enough. It was because they were so heavily compromised by the end that it was becoming impossible to continue.
The saturation of terrorist groups by informers was one reason. By the time of the ceasefires, SF/IRA were simply doing what the British had been priming them to do for more than a decade.
"The Irish government," Gerry Adams demanded last week, "must use all of the resources, all of its diplomatic services... to exert pressure on the British government to open its books on collusion".
He is absolutely right. That at least 70 murders can be traced back to shipments of arms brought into the North by loyalists in the pay of the security services is an affront. But Loughinisland and Pat Finucane are merely the tip of a very dirty iceberg.
The Stevens Inquiry into collusion found that almost every loyalist with whom it spoke was, at some level, an informer. It may shock some when they realise how many republicans were also working for the British all along. The only question is whether republicans are really prepared for the secrets that will come tumbling out of their closets too. If they do expect us to believe they care about truth, they should start by telling Ann McCabe exactly why her husband was murdered.