Last week the Assembly resumed following its summer break. Next week it will be the turn of the Dáil. Normally we would be back in Leinster House by now but a major renovation is in progress and this includes a new sound system in the Dáil chamber. Next Tuesday it will be what passes for business as usual in the chamber but most of the rest of the original Leinster House building will remain out of bounds as work continues.
Among the first items I intend to raise will be the disgraceful attitude of the British government toward the Ballymurphy Massacre families. On Monday they met the current British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire. He is the fourth such Minister they have met in recent years. Their hope was that he would agree to release the funds needed for the inquests into the murders of their family members. The 11 dead were all civilians from the Ballymurphy district, including a mother of eight children and the local parish priest. They were killed by the British Paras in August 1971 in the days immediately after the introduction of internment.
It was another fruitless meeting with another British Secretary of State. The families walked out in frustration. John Teggart, whose father was among those killed described the meeting as “terrible”.
It’s 45 years since the Ballymurphy Massacre. The families have been tireless in their efforts to get to the truth. They have had some success along the way but the new inquests that were ordered in 2011 by the Attorney General are key to making more progress.
For this reason, there has been a deliberate policy by the British government and its intelligence agencies to block inquests. Currently there are scores of outstanding inquests into disputed killings by British state forces or unionist death squads acting in collusion with those forces. It is estimated that the average time these families have had to wait for an inquest thus far is close to 23 years.
The reality is that the British state is actively working to prevent the truth from emerging. The Historical Enquries Team (HET), which was established in 2005 to re-examine cases was actively blocked from accessing files held by the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence. It was eventually closed down when a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary accused the HET of investigating killings by British forces will less vigour that it was using in other cases. The HET lost credibility as a result.
Like the HET the Police Ombudsman’s office has faced hurdles in accessing intelligence and policing documents relating to scores of murders, including those carried out by the infamous Glenanne Gang, which included members of the RUC and UDR. According to a new book, The History Thieves, by Guardian reporter Ian Cobain, the archive of documents that was painstakingly built up by the investigations of John Stevens into collusion were handed back to the PSNI in 2011. There are an estimated 100 tonnes of documents – 100 tonnes!!!!!
Today they sit in Seapark, a high security facility at Carrickfergus. The archive – which the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton called ‘The Vault’ is, according to Cobain ‘unreachable’. It includes the Stalker and Sampson reports into the RUC’s Shoot-to-kill policy of the 1980s, as well as files on collusion involving the UDR and the Military Reaction Force (MRF).
Cobain, whose book I will review in more detail in another blog, states that ‘The Vault’ is guarded by the ‘Legacy Support Unit’ of the PSNI; “Many of them are former Special Branch detectives, brought out of retirement specifically to perform this task.”
The Guardian reporter quotes Hamilton from a television interview in the course of which the Chief Constable describes the content of the Vault. He says: “If the Vault was to be opened, I know there will be literally millions of documents. I’m not just talking about intelligence documents, I’m talking about plans for covert operations, I’m talking about minutes of meetings. My understanding is that the IRA, the UVF and other players in this didn’t keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.”
Is it any wonder that successive British governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to withhold intelligence information and to obstruct families desperately trying to get to the truth of the death of a loved one?
The Lord Chief Justice for the North Declan Morgan has urged the British government to release the funds. He warned that failure to do this will mean ‘further devastation for grieving families’ and a delay of more decades before all of the outstanding cases might be completed.
All of the North’s political parties want inquest funding released except for the DUP. Their opposition is designed to protect British state agencies and individual members of the RUC, its Special Branch and a range of intelligence agencies from being held accountable for the murder of citizens. The Irish government has a responsibility to assist all of these families. I have raised this with the Taoiseach many times. It is my intention to do so again.