Killing for — and by — the state

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This was a dirty little war* fought with calculated brutality on all sides.

I always knew this about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but for a long time, and until relatively recently as a mostly casual observer, I largely dismissed the accusations that the British government had a direct hand in facilitating if not orchestrating Loyalist paramilitary murder and mayhem.

I was aware of the accusations but had accepted the official denials that were reinforced in the academic work on the subject that I was reading. For example, Steve Bruce argued in his otherwise excellent work on Loyalist paramilitaries that there was a key distinction between the Loyalists and the government death squads killing political opponents with impunity in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.  The UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commando were “for the state” but not “of the state” like their Latin American counterparts. Any ties between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the state were unofficial, informal, and unsanctioned.

Paul Larkin’s 2003 book A Very British Jihad was the first to get me to challenge that convenient (for the British) narrative.

A bright spotlight will again be turned on these charges in an investigative report to be broadcast tonight on BBC’s Panorama program in which Northern Ireland’s former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan claims that “hundreds and hundreds” of people died with the complicity of undercover state operatives. Panorama explored this territory before, in a two-part investigation aired in 2002, but the scale of collusion depicted in those reports is dwarfed by what is apparently to be revealed in the new story. Official damage control is already under way, with the PSNI’s chief constable preemptively casting doubt on the claims to be made.

Near as I can tell from the pre-broadcast reporting, there is one topic that looks like it will receive much less scrutiny than it ought to, the role of British operatives on the Republican side of the conflict. And that is a serious problem given what is already known about the IRA double agent known as Stakeknife, who as head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the “Nutting Squad,” is said to have been involved in up to 40 murders while under the protection of his British handlers.

In short, a full accounting of collusion in Northern Ireland cannot only focus on state involvement with Loyalist paramilitaries. It must also include coming clean on what remain extremely sensitive topics: the use of informers within the Nationalist community and the ranks of the IRA, responsibility for the fate of informers whose activities were discovered (one of the nagging unknowns in the tragic murder of Jean McConville), the involvement of informers and state agents in IRA killings and other acts of terrorism, and the extent of the penetration of the Republican Movement by agents of the state, especially at the highest levels.

The mural is right. Collusion is state murder, and it matters not whether the gunmen on the payroll were Loyalist or Republican.

*As an aside, I take great pains to explain to audiences on my side of the Atlantic that this was a “little” war only if we remove the raw numbers of casualties from the context of Northern Ireland’s tiny population base. As a proportion of the population affected, the roughly 3,300 killed and 40,000 injured over the 30-year course of the conflict would be the equivalent of more than a half million dead and nearly 7 million wounded had the war been fought in the United States during the same period.