The British establishment knows something about hypocrisy and brass-necked politics. Especially when it comes to Ireland. This week was a case in point. The British media extensively covered the celebration of the signing 800 years ago by the English King John in 1215 of the Magna Carta.
The long history of colonisation between England and Ireland left no room for celebration on this island. While they were busy taking from the Irish the English Barons – fed up with the abusive behaviour of King John - but more importantly wanting a greater share of the economic spoils and of political power – demanded that John agree to a charter that would limit the power of the King.
The Charter was essentially the Barons telling John that he was not above the law and to back off from excessive taxes. However, within a couple of months the English King retracted it all and secured the support of the Pope, in a papal bull, in renouncing this ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.’
Standing at the site of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede British Prime Minister David Cameron waxed lyrical about human rights and how people around the world ‘see how the great charter shaped the world for the best part of a millennium helping to promote arguments for justice and freedom…’
He then signalled his government’s intention again to repeal the Human Rights Act and to end Britain’s involvement with the European Convention on Human Rights. These are two key foundation stones for the Good Friday Agreement. They are essential elements of that historic peace treaty and of subsequent agreements, especially in respect of policing and justice.
The European Convention on Human Rights has been an indispensable tool in holding successive British governments to some sort of account for their human rights violations in the north during the years of conflict. And for that reason, as well as because he wants to pander to the anti-EU element of his party, Cameron wants to tear it up.
His performance at the Magna Carta celebrations was, as the Director of Liberty described it as a ‘masterclass in bare-faced cheek.’ Allan Hogwarth of Amnesty International put it nicely. He said: ‘David Cameron’s use of the anniversary of the Magna Carta to justify scrapping the Human Rights Act will have those 13th century Barons spinning in their highly ornate, lead lined coffins.’
But that’s only part of the story.
Another and more deadly aspect of British policy in Ireland was put under the spotlight in an RTE documentary on Monday night - How Police & soldiers helped terrorists kill & maim in Northern Ireland: Collusion - An Investigation. It brought into sharp focus the role of the British state, at its highest political level, in planning, ordering and sanctioning state murder on a massive scale.
Much of what it contained was not new. The BBC spotlight programme of a few weeks ago touched on the same issue. And for citizens in the north collusion has been part of the political agenda for decades.
It took 30 years for RTE to make this programme. So, for many citizens in the south it was their first real opportunity to see the reality of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland. While David Cameron and others in that establishment were speaking of the great record of Britain in defending human rights the truth of that lie was being laid bare on RTE. The policy of state sponsored collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads was part and parcel of Britain’s political and military strategy in the six counties.
In her essential work on this issue – Lethal Allies – Anne Cadwallader of the Pat Finucane Centre concluded that it was an ‘inescapable fact, established beyond doubt by these events’ that ‘successive British governments and their law enforcement agencies entered into a collusive counter-insurgency campaign with loyalist paramilitaries. It was thoroughly unethical – and it failed dismally. It was also illegal under international law.’
Regrettably successive Irish government’s failed to uphold the rights of the hundreds of Irish citizens who were killed or the thousands more who were injured, imprisoned or tortured, as a consequence of British policy. The most obvious example of this is the Dublin Monaghan bombs which killed 33 citizens. But there are also the deaths of Councillor Eddie Fullerton, of Jack Rooney and Hugh Watters who were killed in Dundalk and of Seamus Ludlow and others.
The SDLP, Irish governments and others used to regularly ridicule claims of collusion. No longer. Nor can it be dismissed as a ‘few bad apples’. It was pervasive and strategic and policy driven by the British government from 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet, to its military and intelligence agencies.
The emotional and psychological cost of collusion is still felt by families and survivors across Ireland, including the families of Sinn Féin members and family members who were killed.
I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach twice this week in the Dáil. I urged him to meet with Relatives for Justice.
The Taoiseach should be a champion of this agreement and particularly those elements which are within the authority of the governments.
As a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements he has a responsibility to press the British government to move ahead with the implementation of those elements of the Stormont House Agreement that deal with the past and legacy issues. They have the authority to advance many of the protocols dealing with the past.
These include: the establishment of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU); putting in place processes that are victim centred; improving Legacy inquests to ensure that they are conducted to comply with ECHR Article 2 requirements; ensuring that both governments provide full disclosure to the HIU; and establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR). The Taoiseach should press Mr. Cameron to implement all other elements of the Stormont House Agreement that are the responsibility of the two governments.
In this way the bereaved families and victims will have access to mechanisms that can help to bring truth and justice and closure.
Finally, it is worth recalling some of the bald statistics of collusion:
· The Glennane Gang which was responsible for up 150 murders, including the Dublin Monaghan bombings, was made of agents and serving members of the RUC and UDR.
· The Stevens Inquiry found that of 210 Loyalist it identified, 207 were agents for elements of the British security services.
· Stevens recommended the arrest and prosecution of 24 Special Branch officers and British Army handlers of loyalist killers for their involvement in scores of murders. The British government refused to arrest or prosecute those responsible.
· DaSilva found that 85% of all Loyalist Intelligence came from the British agencies.
· British intelligence agencies armed loyalists, provided intelligence, and safe passage, and covered up their activities.
· The former head of RUC Special Branch Raymond White recalls how he raised the issue of the use of agents and collusion with former British PM Thatcher only for his concerns to be dismissed. He was essentially told: “carry on – just don’t get caught”.