The United States of America and Northern Ireland


The concept of truth and Northern Ireland's problems in "dealing with the past"

November 06, 2013

Andrew Sanders

The concept of truth and Northern Ireland's problems in "dealing with the past"


The “dirty war” that occurred in Northern Ireland over the course of the troubles had participants from all sides fully engaged.  This past week has seen two of the most troubling issues from Northern Ireland’s past tackled in the public sphere: collusion and the Disappeared.  The former was the alleged deliberate engagement between security force members and loyalist paramilitaries in a series of killings, notably those of civilians.  The latter was the alleged republican (predominantly, but not exclusively) tactic of abducting someone it considered to have committed a sufficiently serious crime against the republican movement, killing them and burying them in secret.  Both created a number of victims and families who have spent decades seeking answers for what happened to their loved ones.  I use the word “alleged”, but to many families on either side, there is nothing alleged about these crimes.

Former journalist Anne Cadwallader last week launched her new book “Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland” which claims to offer “indisputable evidence of security force collusion” with loyalist paramilitaries.

In the book, Cadwallader, who joined the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry after leaving journalism, brought together the work of the Centre, notably that of Alan Brecknell, with Historical Enquiries Team evidence to investigate a series of unsolved murders that took place during the troubles.  Brecknell was investigating the death of his father Trevor in a gun attack at a bar in Silverbridge, County Armagh, on 19 December 1975.  The attack is reported in David McKittrick’s “Lost Lives” (where Brecknell is listed as Bracknell) as being the work of the Red Hand Commando and also killed fourteen-year-old Michael Donnelly and twenty-four year old Patrick Donnelly.

Speaking to the Irish News in 2006, Brecknell commented that “there was always an allegation of security force involvement” in the death of his father.  He alleges that one of his father’s killers was Robert McConnell, a UDR member who was linked to the loyalist Glenanne Gang and therefore possibly also involved in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings.  McConnell was shot dead by the IRA outside his home in Newtownhamilton in 1976.

During a visit to Derry, Alan got in touch with the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights group which was named for the Belfast solicitor who was killed by the UDA in another controversial killing.  Alan began working for the centre and was actively involved in their on-going research.

Cadwallader’s book reveals that RUC officers and UDR members were part of a gang based in South Armagh and Tyrone, two areas where the IRA was particularly strong, that was allegedly responsible for the deaths of 120 people between 1972 and 1976.  This isn’t so much of a revelation, of course, “The Glenanne Gang” is sufficiently well known that it has its own Wikipedia entry.  Members of the gang, named after the farm at Glenanne, near to Markethill in County Armagh, where it dumped arms and manufactured bombs, are listed on Wikipedia.

The gang featured a number of loyalist figures, including Robin ‘the Jackal’ Jackson, who commanded the UVF’s Mid-Ulster brigade and was also apparently a Special Branch agent with ties to military intelligence.  He was named by John Weir, RUC officer and former UVF volunteer who was jailed for the killing of catholic civilian William Strathearn, who gave a sworn affidavit to the 2003 Barron Report on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.  Troublingly, there were also a large number of people with UDR associations named in the Glenanne Gang.

Researchers for the Pat Finucane Centre unearthed documents in the National Archives at Kew, outside London, that suggested that British officials were concerned with the issue of subversion within the UDR during the early 1970s.

The activities of the Pat Finucane Centre, “a non-party political, anti-sectarian human rights group”, during investigations into collusion are appropriate given the solicitor for whom it is named was also the alleged victim of collusion.

In the case of the Finucane killing, the Da Silva report, which sought to investigate the lawyer’s murder in front of his family on 12 Feburary 1989, found that British Army handlers deliberately helped loyalist gunmen select their targets, but that British ministers were perhaps unaware that Finucane, best know for representing the IRA prisoners engaged in the 1981 hunger strike, was being targeted.  Finucane, as a private individual actively engaged professionally with members of the general public in his role as a lawyer, was a relatively soft target for loyalist paramilitaries.  As Ian S. Wood and I pointed out in our 2012 book “Times of Troubles: Britain’s War in Northern Ireland”, Finucane was listed in the telephone book.  Further, we noted that Finucane may not have been advised that he was living under the threat of death from loyalists because to do so would have permitted him access to police protection, which was impractical given the number of death threats that were on-going throughout the troubles.

Finucane’s family were angered at the findings of the Da Silva report, particularly at the fact that the UK government had selected the head of the inquiry itself, rather than allowed them input into the inquiry.  His widow, Geraldine, commented:

“At every turn it is clear that this report has done exactly what was required – to give the benefit of the doubt to the state, its cabinet and ministers, to the army, to the intelligence services and to itself.  At every turn, dead witnesses have been blamed and defunct agencies found wanting. Serving personnel and active state departments appear to have been excused. The dirt has been swept under the carpet without any serious attempt to lift the lid on what really happened to Pat and so many others. This report is a sham, this report is a whitewash, this report is a confidence trick dressed up as independent scrutiny and given invisible clothes of reliability. But most of all, most hurtful and insulting of all, this report is not the truth.”


That collusion occurred during the Northern Ireland troubles is now widely accepted.   The levels at which it was condoned, approved, or even ordered is still, however, unclear.  The “subversion in the UDR” documents unearthed by Pat Finucane Centre researchers suggest that relatively senior government officials were aware of the problem of collaboration, or indeed collusion, between members of the unit and loyalist paramilitaries.  The question is, how far up the ranks of government did these documents gain any significant traction?

It is not surprising, in the circumstances of the conflict, that the occasional rogue soldier or police officer should commit a crime or become involved with illegal organisations.  What would be surprising, and indeed unacceptable, is if the state actively sought alliance with illegal organisations with a view to changing the dynamics of a conflict or, worse still, to actively target civilians.  The actions of those such as Brian Nelson, the former soldier who was placed in the UDA as an agent and provided with intelligence on suspected IRA figures, suggests that army officers were at least involved in collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries.  The controversial Force Research Unit, the focus of the Stevens Inquiry, controlled Nelson, as it did “Stakeknife” in the IRA.

The problem here is the definition of “the state”.  Are we talking about the British government?  Are we talking about the police or military, perhaps better described as “agents of the state”?  In either case, how far up the chain of command does an order or approval for an action have to come before we can accurately say that something is the action of the state?

Clearly, a reasonable statement to make is that the state should be held to a higher standard of accountability.  Problems emerge, however, when paramilitaries-turned-statesmen are involved in controversial killings.

The release of Cadwallader’s book almost coincided with the airing of a BBC/RTE documentary on the issue of “the Disappeared”.  The Disappeared were the people who were abducted, murdered and buried in secret graves by republicans over the course of the troubles.  The bodies of just over half of the sixteen people suspected of being “disappeared” have been recovered.

Gerry Adams featured on the documentary and was evasive when answering direct questions about the case of Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright.  Adams turned to twitter on the morning of Tuesday 5 November to ask for help in recovering the bodies of the remaining disappeared individuals.  He claimed to be “continuing” the work of organisations who seek to recover the victims of disappearances.

There was also significant time overlap between the cases of the disappeared individuals and the cases of collusion.  The first case of a “disappearance” was that of Joe Lynskey, a former Cistercian monk from Beechmount in West Belfast, who disappeared in September 1972.  His remains have never been found.

One month later, Kevin McKee, aged seventeen, and Seamus Wright, were abducted and accused of being British army agents.  Brendan Hughes, the former IRA commander whose story illuminated Ed Moloney’s “Voices from the Grave”, based on the collection of tapes known as the Boston College tapes, said that the pair were taken across the border to the Republic of Ireland and interrogated for a number of weeks before being killed.  Their bodies have never been found.

Two months after McKee and Wright were taken, perhaps the most controversial of all the “disappearances” took place, that of widow and mother of ten Jean McConville.  McConville, who lived in the Divis Flats in the Lower Falls area of West Belfast, was accused in republican circles of being an informer, but another story told of her angering the IRA by comforting a wounded soldier who had fallen victim to a republican attack near her door.  McConville’s body was found on a beach in County Louth in 2003.

Other victims included Peter Wilson, considered a vulnerable person with learning difficulties whose remains were found in November 2010; Eamon Molloy, accused of being an informer, discovered in a cemetery in Dundalk in 1999; Columba McVeigh, a seventeen year old accused of being a British army agent; British army Captain Robert Nairac, abducted from a bar in South Armagh as he attempted to gather intelligence in a rather reckless or clumsy fashion; Brendan Megraw, accused of being a British agent; Brian McKinney and John McClory, accused of stealing IRA weapons for use in robberies; Gerard Evans, who vanished for no apparent reason but was discovered in County Louth in 2010; Eugene Simons who was discovered in Dundalk in 1984; Danny McIlhone, accused of stealing weapons and found in 2008; Charlie Armstrong, a fifty-seven year old man who was found in 2010; and Seamus Ruddy, who went missing in France in 1985 and was believed to have been killed by the INLA.

The most recent developments in the case of the disappeared have been in the case of the Columba McVeigh disappearance, but searches in 2011, 2012 and 2013 have all failed to find his body.

Along with Adams’s comments on twitter, Martin McGuinness described the on-going issue of the Disappeared as a “wound that must not be left to fester”.  The problem is that, in addition to finding the remains of their loved ones, the families of those killed surely deserve answers.

While the McConville family found their mother’s body, three decades after she vanished, they still do not understand why she was taken.  Indeed, consensus opinion even eludes historians, as noted above.

The McConville case was at the centre of the development of the controversy around the Boston College oral history tapes.  The claim that Dolours Price had spoken about the McConville disappearance was apparently at the centre of the subpoena that placed the integrity of the entire oral history project in doubt.

Controversially, Price was interviewed by an Irish News journalist whilst hospitalised in February 2010.  This interview was reported by Ciaran Barnes to have included a confession about her involvement in the McConville case.  She was then, in September 2012, interviewed for CBS, the transcript of which was published in the Sunday Telegraph.  During this interview she admitted to having driven McConville across the border into the Republic of Ireland.  On neither occasion was she questioned or detained by authorities.


Ed Moloney has stated, in an affidavit, that Price did not mention McConville at any stage in her interview with researcher Anthony McIntyre during the Boston interviews which took place between 2001 and 2006.

The Boston College oral history project, as evident in “Voices from the Grave” offered a real opportunity for in depth investigation into the actions of both republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations.  Former combatants from either side had given open accounts to the project on the condition that they would not be published until after the death of the participant.  The situation that developed after it was reported that Price had spoken about the McConville case on tape (which can be fully accessed on has threatened the entire project and, with it, the hope of acquiring an improved understanding of Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

This is particularly problematic given the fact that the Boston College oral history project was the only such project that placed republicans under any sort of scrutiny.  The production of the documentary on the Disappeared has now offered another avenue of investigation, but has brought only further appeals for information which, twenty-eight years after the last known disappearance, seems unlikely to be forthcoming.

The issues of the Disappeared and collusion can be tied together under a wider umbrella: the families who were lied to.  This was the title of an important blog post last week from Anthony McIntyre.  McIntyre raises the issue of the killing of Joe O’Connor in 2000, a killing for which he very publicly blamed the Provisional IRA at great personal risk to himself.  O’Connor was the Belfast Commander of the Real IRA and lived in Ballymurphy.  He was also a relative of Francisco Notarantonio, an innocent victim of the UDA after he was incorrectly identified as the IRA informer “Steak-knife”.

The O’Connor killing, which took place long after the Provisional IRA ceasefire, is but one example of absolute necessity of consistent application of the principles of investigation we associate with “dealing with the past”.  McIntyre noted that Cadwallader had written, in Ireland on Sunday (23/10/2000), on the O’Connor killing in which she questioned claims, in an article McIntyre wrote with Tommy Gorman, that the PIRA had been responsible for the death of O’Connor.

That McIntyre and Gorman were justified in their claims is evident from the treatment of the two men since these claims were made.  McIntyre had to leave his home in Belfast and move to the Republic of Ireland with his family.


Simply because Cadwallader did not seek to criticise the Provisional IRA for the killing of Joe O’Connor does not, of course, undermine her book on collusion.  It is, after all, the product of intensive archival and documentary research on the part of the Pat Finucane Centre.  What could be an issue, however, is the fact that the perception of selectivity could arise and indeed has arisen, although largely on various online fora.

The issue of truth recovery is a sensitive one.  The “what” histories are increasingly well known, particularly through the activities of the Historical Enquiries Team, the Pat Finucane Centre, the various inquiries and investigations that have gone on, the Boston College project (to an extent) and the dozens of books about various aspects of the troubles.  The issue of “what” is investigated absolutely must ensure that inquiries are not selective in their nature.

What remains unclear in so many cases is “why?”  It is the “why” question that might help relatives and concerned parties understand the reasons for certain events.  The Saville Inquiry went some way to addressing the “why” behind Bloody Sunday, but was hindered by the limited accounts given to the investigators by the soldiers involved on the day.  The families of the victims of Bloody Sunday were, as evident from television pictures and news reports, very happy with the outcome of Saville.  The problem is that Saville cost hundreds of millions of pounds and is, consequently, unrepeatable.  

The “why” dimension to the story of the Disappeared is in some cases obvious.  Some of those taken away to be killed and buried in secret were murdered for betrayal.  The IRA shot plenty of people for informing over the course of its campaign.  It didn’t necessarily disappear them all, but the message sent to others suspected of informing was clear.  What Jean McConville did to merit becoming one of the disappeared is far less obvious.  Even if Dolours Price could tell her story, her role in the McConville disappearance was relatively minor.  She carried out instructions.

It is only senior republicans, many of whom are not only still around, but actively engaged in politics across Ireland, who can answer the questions of “why” in the cases of the disappeared.

Answers for the “why” questions of collusion might be even more difficult to find.

Why did collusion occur?  This is a question that is left unanswered despite the excellent work of a variety of groups and academics.  What was the purpose in killing innocent people, particularly innocent Catholics?  There was never widespread support within the Catholic or nationalist communities of Northern Ireland for the IRA and to actively target Catholic civilians would serve only to drive people towards armed republicanism, particularly when the parties responsible for the murders were loyalist paramilitaries.  At least, this would encourage a less passive form of tolerance of IRA activities.


Why was collusion only targeted at civilians?  This is the most puzzling question that has yet to be answered in an even remotely satisfactory manner.  If security force members were supplying information to loyalist paramilitaries in order to facilitate the murder of people living in nationalist areas, why did they not set up more IRA figures?  Why was Pat Finucane, a lawyer who represented IRA men (perhaps in the minds of the security forces an “IRA lawyer), the most high profile figure killed?  It is true that, had Gerry Adams been killed in the 1984 attack in Belfast City Centre, the story of collusion might have been different.  Of course, Adams was shot with tampered bullets, bullets that were allegedly tampered with by a British agent within the UDA.  This was an act of “reverse collusion” that very likely saved his life.


The ability to draw a line under events in the past and simply move on varies considerably from person to person and case to case.  The disappeared have been described as the lowest level on the hierarchy of victimhood that some claim has emerged in post-conflict Northern Ireland.  The concept of a “hierarchy of victimhood” is typically linked to the presence of inquiries into the actions of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries and the lack of similar inquiries into the actions of republican paramilitaries.

It is important to note that out of all the groups involved in the Northern Irish conflict, only the INLA and the IRA killed more British security force members than civilians.  For every other group, the most common victims were civilians.  In the case of these republican paramilitaries, however, the INLA killed 40 civilians and 46 British security force members, while the IRA killed 510 and 1009 respectively.

If we take the category of victim of civilian as a standard for which inquiries and investigations should be conducted, then we are dealing with 1841 deaths.  One thousand one hundred and eighty two of these deaths occurred before 1980.  Obtaining accurate accounts of incidents that took place three and a half decades ago will be almost impossible, particularly those which involved organisations without a bureaucratic machine behind them.  Witnesses to key events, officials and administrative assistants, particularly those who were involved at senior levels of government during the 1970s are either dead or retired.  If they were accessible and willing to talk, would their recollections even be accurate?

The concept of dealing with the past is particularly tricky, given that one of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement, exemplified in the prisoner release programme, was the idea of leaving the past in the past.  If Northern Ireland is to leave the past behind and move on towards the shared future that so many strongly desire, it seems necessary that everyone who still deals with the past is able to resolve their own issues in a satisfactory manner.

The Saville Inquiry brought truth to the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday, but questions were asked about other victims.  There are thousands of families who still have no real answers.