On an island still tormented by the Troubles, Britain’s Legacy Act is making things worse | Fintan O’Toole

Fifty years ago, on 17 May 1974, my father, a bus conductor, was out on strike. That day, the Troubles arrived with a vengeance in my home town of Dublin. Three bombs exploded at different points in the city centre during rush hour. Because the buses were not operating, there were more people walking along those streets than usual. Twenty-three of them were killed and another three later succumbed to their injuries. Another bomb that exploded 90 minutes later in Monaghan, on the southern side of the border, killed seven people.

In 1984, when I was trying to write a piece for the 10th anniversary of the bombings, I called to the houses of some of the bereaved families. No one wanted to talk to me. They felt betrayed, abandoned, already forgotten. They had no trust in anyone. Marie Sherry, who was injured but survived, later described how, in the weeks and months after the massacre, she would ask her mother: “‘Mum, any news on those people who did the bombing? Was anybody charged?’ There never was news. There were no names. Nobody was charged. I lived my life thinking, ‘These guys are walking around. They could be sitting beside me in the cinema. They could be on the bus.’”

This torment continues to haunt tens of thousands of people who lost loved ones or who were themselves maimed in atrocities during the Troubles. Writing in 2021, Jon Boutcher, who is now chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, noted how anniversaries mark not just the moments of death, but the intolerable passage of years of unknowing: “Anniversaries of such awful events as the devastating attacks in Dublin and Monaghan will continue to be unbearably painful reminders of the distrust and disharmony that existed then and sadly, without answers for families, remains today.”

Distrust and disharmony linger because impunity goes deep. Figures obtained by the investigative website The Detail in 2018 show 1,186 of the 3,200 killings within Northern Ireland (thus not including those in the Republic of Ireland or Britain) remain unsolved. Of these, 46% were attributed to republican paramilitaries, 23% to loyalist paramilitaries and 29% to the security forces. This last figure is telling: the UK state is not, in all of this, a neutral presence. It has a lot of skin and bone and blood in the game.

It is right to remember that paramilitaries, including the IRA, of which Sinn Féin was the political wing, remain deeply embedded in this culture of impunity. Just last month, the inquest into the sectarian murders of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmills in County Armagh in 1976 noted that the IRA has continued to lie about its perpetration of the massacre. The coroner also put on record that the IRA refused to engage with the inquest and that there had been “no acknowledgement by the IRA of the utter wrongness of the atrocity, its impact on those bereaved or the damage caused to the entire community”.

This damage continues to be done through selective outrage. Some of those who demand accountability from the British state exempt themselves from the same strictures. In the absence of a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process, the fundamental right of all the bereaved to know what happened to their loved ones is weaponised for partial and partisan histories. Truth is pockmarked with selective silences. Whataboutery reigns.

Yet democratic states ought to have higher standards than paramilitary killers. As Boutcher, then investigating the multiple killings attributed to Freddie Scappaticci, who doubled as the IRA’s internal enforcer and as a British agent, put it in 2021: “Transparency and honesty is what sets democracies apart from those that committed these crimes. It is fundamental to our values as individuals, organisations, elected representatives and governments that we provide families with the truth.”

The truth about the involvement of British state actors in many killings remains murky. In the case of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, for example, there have long been doubts about whether the Ulster Volunteer Force, which claimed responsibility in 1993, could have been capable on its own of such a complex and carefully coordinated operation. An official inquiry in the Republic concluded that although there was no direct evidence of involvement by British security force members, it was “neither fanciful nor absurd” to believe that it happened. Similar suspicions attach to dozens of other killings by the Glenanne gang that operated within the UVF and that certainly contained many members of the security forces.

The British government – against the opposition of every single political party in both parts of Ireland – has now used the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act to close down not just criminal inquiries into Troubles killings, but also inquests and civil cases taken by relatives and survivors, and instead establish an independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery. It has also separately announced that it will commission an official history of the Troubles as recorded on state files.

Some greatly respected people are involved in these initiatives: Sir Declan Morgan, who is chief commissioner of the independent commission, is a former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland and the co-chairs of the history project, Lord Paul Bew and Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, are distinguished academic historians.

But the lifeblood of such institutional efforts is public trust, a confidence that is extremely difficult to establish in a context where the British state has such a lamentable record of obfuscation. Why should historians have access to government files that are not available to grieving families? Why, even if we have to accept that criminal trials are now extremely unlikely in most unresolved murder cases, should coroners’ inquests be scrapped too?

Keir Starmer has promised to revisit the Legacy Act. If and when he has the power to do so, he should start with three basic propositions. First, the rights of bereaved families and survivors are paramount. Second, any truth recovery process must be devised jointly by the Northern Ireland executive and the British and Irish governments – it has to have everyone’s trust. Third, and perhaps most painfully for an incoming Labour government, Britain has to drop the pretence that it is merely an honest broker in all of this. The state – including under Labour administrations – was a party to the conflict. It has a historic duty to submit its actions to independent judgment. Until it accepts that responsibility wholeheartedly, the poison of the past will continue to seep into the future.


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