Sunday 8 December 2019

It's time for a truth commission to shine a light on all of the North's secrets at once

From left: Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, Denis Donaldson and Gerry Adams in Stormont, in 2005, before Donaldson was unmasked as a British informer. Photo: Paul Faith/PA
From left: Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, Denis Donaldson and Gerry Adams in Stormont, in 2005, before Donaldson was unmasked as a British informer. Photo: Paul Faith/PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Truth can be twisted and suppressed, manipulated and buried. But it can never fundamentally be changed - and it has a habit of surfacing sooner or later.

Hands were bloodied on more than one side of the Northern conflict. When a peace settlement was agreed finally, an army of skeletons was jammed into closets in the interests of political expediency.

But every once in a while, a cupboard door swings open and one of those skeletons rattles out.

Currently, Gerry Adams is the focus of questions following a BBC NI 'Spotlight' investigation, which alleged that he authorised informer Denis Donaldson's execution.

The accusation, made by an anonymous ex-IRA man, has been denied. But with contentious claims about the Sinn Féin leader surfacing regularly - Jean McConville haunts him, for instance - we are reminded that the truth has never seen the light of day in the North.

For some, too much truth is unwelcome. This applies not just to individuals who may be compromised by what they did, but to state authorities, as well.

Our troubled history cannot be laundered whiter than white by collective silence. Episodes from the past will continue to bubble up. A status of moral ambiguity was tolerated to facilitate the establishment of the Northern Executive, and allow it space to bed down, but the ongoing speak-no-evil approach is no longer in society's best interests.

Those 30 years of the Troubles were a murky conflict, as all wars tend to be, but the drip-drip of allegations is now more damaging than the alternative. Which is to set up a truth commission and seek some measure of truth recovery.

Let's decommission all of the inconvenient truths at once. Otherwise they'll keep breaking through, no matter how those with vested interests seek to lock them away.

Almost 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles, with many more injured both physically and psychologically. Victims and their families deserve answers. But the truth is withheld from them.

The British and Irish governments, as well as the Stormont administration, need to abandon their policy of letting sleeping dogs lie. Loyalists and republicans have already indicated a willingness to participate in truth recovery.

Such a mechanism can never uncover every truth but it is a tried-and-tested means of outing buried secrets and lies.

However, it needs to examine not just republican and loyalist actions - where civilian casualties were viewed callously as collateral damage - but the actions of British agents who accepted the same principle.

Any truth commission worth the name should and must delve into republican violence, loyalist violence and state violence.

Tellingly, of all parties to the conflict, the British government is least keen on resurrecting the past. This is hardly discussed.

We know there were spooks and securocrats at work in the shadows. As for the moral no-man's land of running informers, it's generally accepted this was common practice within the RUC. The subject is explored in David Park's fine novel 'The Truth Commissioner' (there is a film by the same name).

For most of the Troubles, Northern Ireland was ruled directly from Whitehall, home to Britain's Ministry of Defence and headquarters of its armed forces. Minister after minister authorised actions in the North which, if made public, would greatly discredit Britain's international reputation.

Why would Britain oppose a truth commission, even if it was in Northern Ireland's best long-term interests? Let's consider some reasons.

Security forces' collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, including the targeting of assassinated solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson; the killing of unarmed civilians - 10 shot in the Ballymurphy massacre by the Parachute Regiment in 1971, a prelude to Derry's Bloody Sunday when the Paras were allowed to run amok again; internment without trial; interrogation techniques (including hooding detainees) described as "inhuman" by the European Court of Human Rights. The tip of an iceberg, perhaps?

The FRU, known variously as the Force Research Unit or the Field Reconnaissance Unit, was a covert military intelligence section of the British army. It used double agents to infiltrate republican and loyalist paramilitary groups - Freddie 'Stakeknife' Scappaticci was said to be one of its spies. It has been alleged his role as an informer was protected by the deaths of those who might have exposed him. The FRU's existence came to light in the 1990s when the Stevens Inquiry found it used its agents to help loyalists kill people, civilians included.

To this day, the truth of what really happened during the Troubles is not in the public domain. A truth forum could fill in some of the blanks. While republicans and loyalists are willing to cooperate - we don't know how wholeheartedly - Britain shies away, citing national security.

The fate of Denis Donaldson is part of this 'don't ask, don't tell' shibboleth concerning the Troubles.

He was close to Gerry Adams for many years, and became a senior Sinn Féin official at Stormont after the Good Friday Agreement. In 2005, he was revealed to be an MI5 agent, and after admitting it in a press conference he went into hiding. A matter of months later, he was found shot dead in the Donegal cottage where he was living.

Some years afterwards, the Real IRA accepted responsibility. But the source known as "Martin" in the 'Spotlight' programme said it was an IRA hit, and dissidents simply wanted to suggest they had the capacity to eliminate a British agent.

A truth forum would help to clear up such claims and counter-claims. Perhaps some former combatants on both sides would welcome the opportunity to tell what they know. Unspoken truths can be a burden.

Meanwhile, the inquest into Mr Donaldson's death has been adjourned an extraordinary 18 times in the Republic as his family's legal team argues for disclosure of material evidence.

Intriguing, no?

Peace in the North is an outstanding political achievement. Mr Adams played a key role both in ratcheting up the conflict and delivering a peaceful solution. Of such contradictions is our history forged.

Some say a truth commission might undermine our precious peace. I disagree. What's likely to be unearthed has political implications, of course. But consider this: whose needs are best served by silence?

Irish Independent

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