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State-sponsored murder



... and the only way to describe it.

ONCE again the political future of Northern Ireland is in the balance. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has challenged the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to answer three questions: will they stop all paramilitary action; will they get rid of all weapons and is their conflict over? Many commentators supported his challenge, and understood the exasperation which led him to make it.

Predictably, the unequivocal questions have not at the time of writing received equally unequivocal answers. Predictably also the Unionist reaction to the answers that have come has been negative. As is frequently the case with Northern Ireland, one is left with the feeling that the local politicians do not really want to make the compromises necessary for an agreement — at least for so long as the British and Republic of Ireland Governments are prepared to continue the process of discussion and diplomacy which is so alien to the local politicians of the province themselves.

We have been here before. What is different this time is that the latest intervention by the Prime Minister has come against the background of a devastating report by the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, who has for years been carrying out an investigation in Northern Ireland.

The report has exposed collusion by the security forces — including the Royal Ulster Constabulary — in murders carried out by so-called loyalist paramilitary groups in the 1980s. In conducting his investigation, Sir John Stevens faced obstruction from within the security forces.

Much of the detailed work of his investigation was carried out by a then senior Met officer, Hugh Orde, who is now the chief constable of the — re-formed and renamed — Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is clear that Mr. Orde is determined to introduce changes — which are being resisted by certain elements within the service.

The fact that the Stevens investigation has been carried out, and that his findings, notwithstanding the fact that they are acutely embarrassing, have been made known, is one of the few good things about the situation.

That the collusion took place is a disgrace. This was not a minor breach of behaviour; it was murder connived at by agents of the State. As the Belfast News Letter put it: "Murder is murder: collusion between those responsible for upholding the laws of the State and those involved in murder is utterly reprehensible". The Daily Mirror's comment was similar: "There is only one way to describe it: State-sponsored murder."

The investigation is not over yet and a number of questions remain. One is whether the director of public prosecutions will bring charges against army and police personnel. A much more significant question is how far up the chain of command the corruption went. In particular, we need to know how much ministers at the time knew, and how much they condoned this criminal activity.

For many years the story of Northern Ireland was a story of communal hatred reflected in terrorist activity. The local politicians have all too frequently shown themselves to be incapable of providing democratic leadership, or unwilling to provide it. The great hope in the protracted, and often frustrating, discussions and negotiations that have followed the Good Friday agreement of 1998 has been that the majority of the people in the province showed that they wanted peace rather than the conflict that had blighted their lives for so many years. It is that which has encouraged Tony Blair and his Conservative predecessor, and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, to take so many initiatives, with so much patience, in their efforts to bring the Good Friday agreement to full reality.

It has been a commendable process, based on a belief in the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

The criminal activity, identified in the Stevens inquiry, of those whose role should have been to uphold the rule of law, is severely damaging to the reputation of the State which employed them, and to those who allowed it to happen. It is a major threat to democracy. As The Guardian put it, politicians must level with us about the nature of the fight against terrorism. "Is the State going to get down in the gutter with the terrorists, or is it going to operate to clearly defined and properly monitored standards?"

Most certainly one cannot uphold democracy and the rule of law by ignoring such standards. Bringing those responsible for these criminal acts to justice, however senior they may be, will be embarrassing. Continuing a policy of cover-up and concealment would be inexcusable.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at

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