Tonight’s BBC Panorama programme will detail allegations about the operation of the Military Reaction Force, or MRF, and how it killed unarmed civilians as part of its work up until 1973. The programme has identified ten unarmed civilians it believes were shot by MRF members operating undercover. It also will include a claim that a Ministry of Defence review concluded that the MRF had “no provision for detailed command and control”.
As with so much reportage about ‘the past’, they aren’t particularly new claims. For instance, one of the unarmed civilians shot by the unit and named in the programme is Daniel Rooney, a 19 year old shot dead by an undercover soldier from a passing car on 27th September 1972 (another man was wounded). The very next day the Irish Times could report that the:
“…shooting of two men in the Donegall Road area of Belfast early yesterday has brought about renewed allegations from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association that an “Army plain clothes murder squad” is operating in the district.” [Irish Times, 28/09/1972]
Just as the recent publication of Lethal Allies has shown, there is a significant lack of symmetry in the experience of those killed by forces acting as part of, or with the active assistance of the security forces, and those killed by groups who challenged the legitimacy of the state, such as republicans. In that light, the Attorney General’s fanciful claim that:
“we have very good tools, subject to the point I’ve made about the passage of time, for critiquing the state, but we don’t have them for bringing to account those who have committed offences against the state”
appears absurd to the point of being completely misleading. Even if we disregard the draconian provisions of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act that were operated by the northern government prior to direct rule from London in 1972, many of the same instruments passed over into use as part of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973, with internment without trial, extended detention periods (which effectively operated as administrative detention), reduced evidential threshholds, non-jury courts and the use of torture and other illegal methods to produce evidence that was then used in the same non-jury trials. These were the methods used over a sustained period of time against those perceived to have committed offences against the state (some, indeed, haven’t gone away).
These provisions were not used against members of the security forces. In contrast, as Lethal Allies illustrates using the case study of an area focussing on north Armagh, there is little evidence that investigations were undertaken of killings carried out by the security forces, off-duty members of the security forces operating alongside loyalist paramilitaries or even loyalist paramilitaries whose objectives were shared by members of the security forces. And significantly, practically none of those killed were active republicans, which is perhaps something Michael Fabricant (Tory Vice-Chairman and MP for Lichfield) needs to read up on:
So we fought terror with terror in Northern Ireland to defend British troops and civilians and the height of the Troubles. So be it.
— Michael Fabricant (@Mike_Fabricant) November 21, 2013
In another current case, that of McGurks Bar, the relatives are still struggling to get any meaningful co-operation from the PSNI. In that regard, the Attorney General seems poorly informed as to the background to the use of the ‘very good tools’. So this is by no means a ‘historical’ issue.
Similarly, the still unexplained decision to give indemnification against prosecution to the Army in July 1972, can be seen to have had been implemented in the absence of any level of investigation, let along successful prosecution, of soldiers who killed unarmed and innocent civilians (never mind the more nuanced issues around shooting of combatants). Again, for one set of examples, see here. The full weight and financial resources of the UK were used to merely avoid acknowledging the truth about Bloody Sunday for decades despite it being known on the day it happened. Similarly, the truth about Daniel Rooney’s killers was reported the next day.
In that light, the tools for ‘critiquing the state’ appear to have not been in any way fit for purpose (making much of the discussion of what he said simply ludicrous). In that regard, the motivation behind the Attorney Generals comments isn’t really clear, unless, like Sinn Féin’s launch of it’s submissions to Haass, its some of the real substance of the Haass discussions surfacing in places just to let people know there is something going on.