Don’t believe Sinn Fein’s truth plea
Sunday Times – Oct. 4, 09
Gerry “Whitey” Bradley, a veteran republican, fled Belfast for the safety of Dublin a few days before submissions closed in an official consultation on how to recover the truth of the Troubles. Bradley’s offence was to tell the truth about his role as a member of the IRA’s Third Belfast Battalion without first seeking permission.
As soon as the book Insider: Gerry Bradley’s Life in the IRA, which he co-authored with Brian Feeney, was serialised in The Irish News, Bradley’s life in Belfast fell apart. Graffiti near his home in the New Lodge area denounced him as a “tout”, and he was confronted and insulted when he socialised or attended the gym.
This is more evidence of how closely contested the history of the conflict — and the right to speak about it — is in republican areas. Richard O’Rawe, an IRA veteran whose book Blanketmen convincingly questioned whether the last six republican hunger strikers needed to die in 1981, got the same treatment.
“The attitude seems to be that only Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams, or the people they approve of, can write about their careers as republicans. It isn’t enough to have been in the IRA — you can’t tell your story unless it is on-message,” says O’Rawe, who has been denounced as an “H-Block traitor” on the walls near his west Belfast home, and has been snubbed in the street.
Yet next week, Sinn Fein plans to publish a paper proposing an open, independent truth-recovery process with no hierarchy of victims allowed. Speaking in Paris last week, Martina Anderson, a Sinn Fein MLA and veteran of the IRA’s 1980s British bombing campaign who has quite a story to tell herself, set the tone. She called for an international panel of experts which would “be fully independent, treat victims on all sides equally, involve the full co-operation of all parties and expose violations by all parties”.
Fine words, but Bradley’s case suggests that republicans are not ready for that sort of openness. Sinn Fein may pay lip service to disclosure but, like the loyalist paramilitaries and the British government, the republican movement often does its best to suppress and manipulate inconvenient truths.
Judging by the newspaper serialisation, Bradley’s memoir is a good read but won’t change our view of history, or land anyone in jail. He tells of a plan to assassinate Brian Faulkner, the former unionist prime minister, which was called off for unknown reasons. He fills in the background of several atrocities and gives a feel of what life was like for an IRA activist in the 1970s. It is, as he says himself, an unashamedly “pro-IRA book”.
At one point, he reveals that James Brown, a newsagent shot dead by the UVF in 1994, had, years earlier, been second-in-command of the IRA in Belfast. Brown allegedly ordered the murder of Faulkner and supplied Bradley with a gun to do it, but the operation was called off. At the time, Ronnie Flanagan, then an assistant chief constable, described Brown as “a hard-working, absolutely soft target”.
Other veterans confirm that Brown dropped out of the IRA many years before he was murdered. A UVF claim that he was involved in the murder of a police officer seven weeks earlier was untrue, and claims of an ongoing IRA role were what Flanagan was denying at the time.
Was Brown an innocent victim? Was he an unarmed soft target gunned down in his shop, as his family remember him, or someone whose violent past caught up with him? Or was he a mixture of all three? Such difficulties are thrown up by any effort to neatly pigeon-hole many of the Troubles’ dead. The issue wouldn’t matter to Sinn Fein if it was really sincere in saying that it recognised no hierarchy of victims.
Behind the talk of equality in death, de facto distinctions, often illogical and contradictory, are instinctively drawn between the dead. Why else draw a veil over Brown’s role in the IRA as a young man?
A similar set of assumptions is apparent in the IRA’s characterisation of its victims. It would, if possible, seek to justify a murder by stressing a victim’s link to the security forces: it might assert that the deceased was a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) or a retired police officer, or that he had supplied goods to the army, rather than describing him as a farmer or shopkeeper. The bereaved, meanwhile, would emphasise their relative’s civilian or family credentials.
The IRA has apologised to “innocent” victims, but labelled others “legitimate targets” in an attempt to dehumanise them. The loyalists have also offered “abject and true remorse” to the innocent dead while claiming that hardly anyone falls into that category.
Breaking ranks against the agreed narrative of your own side, as Bradley and O’Rawe have done, results in a backlash. Anthony McIntyre, another former IRA blanketman, was spurned, picketed in his home and insulted by some former friends after criticising the organisation’s leadership and role. “When I saw people I knew from the IRA or Sinn Fein, I soon learnt to wait until they talked to me,” he says. “Not to be talked to is OK, but if you greet someone and they won’t talk to you, that gives them an advantage.”
Despite funding public inquiries and operating a Freedom of Information policy, the British state is hardly more open or forgiving than the IRA when its interest and narrative are challenged. Whistle-blowing members of the civil service or security forces are ruthlessly pursued under the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, and restrictive contracts signed by undercover operatives. An ex-SAS man or Special Branch officer would fare little better than Bradley or O’Rawe if he published an unauthorised biography.
The Freedom of Information Act contains two sections, 23 and 27, which hamper the search for truth. I discovered that power when I applied for papers on the 1981 hunger strike. Section 23 gives a blanket exemption to any “information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters”. There is no requirement to consider whether disclosure would be damaging. It is just exempt. In fact, information damaging to national security is dealt with under another section. Section 27 gives similar powers to withhold information that could damage relations between the UK and any other state.
Neither the paramilitary actors nor the government have demonstrated much genuine interest in revealing the truth. For instance, a good deal of the £200m spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry rewarded lawyers for fighting over what should be disclosed and what could be withheld.
Despite their fine words, both the republicans and the British government routinely treat whistleblowers as traitors and use the pretext of security to withhold information that could be politically embarrassing. Both sides are often embarrassed by the same information.
If there is an intention to change, then a convincing first move would be to set up a panel of historians, international lawyers and other experts to go through government records relating to the conflict with a brief to publish anything which was not a danger to life. Then would be the time to move on to paramilitaries and private individuals, requiring them to supplement the account or face contempt proceedings for withholding information.
One thing is for sure: if the current emphasis on secrecy is not replaced with a publicly stated bias to disclosure, then consultation on truth recovery will remain a sham.