I went to Belfast this summer because as an aspiring community activist, socialist and anti-imperialist, I am aware that there are precious few parties in the West that have successfully mobilised working class communities along these lines, and in my view, Sinn Fein is one of those precious few.
I am also painfully aware that unless we in such communities here start organising and fighting for our rights, we are shortly going to be plunged into poverty and degradation on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War. I wanted to know how Sinn Fein are responding to the crisis, and to see their form of community politics in action to learn whatever lessons could be of use to those organising in Britain.
At the same time I wanted to discuss and publicise the ongoing struggle for justice of those who lost relatives to
If we are serious about mobilising our communities for the problems ahead, we are going to need the same level of honesty and commitment I saw in
COLLUSION: The greatest untold story of our times
Exclusive interview for Sons of Malcolm by Dan Glazebrook
Interview with Robert McClenaghan of An Fhirinne.
18 August 2010
On 8th July 1981, on the Falls Road in
If the rule of law had prevailed in
Cases such as these are the tip of the iceberg. McClenaghan estimates that around 1100 people have been killed by loyalists as a result of collusion with the agencies of the British state. “In our opinion we could put what the British state has been doing for twenty or thirty years on a par with what happened in
Eight years ago, hundreds of the relatives of those murdered joined forces to create An Fhirinne, a united campaign to discover the truth about how and why their loved ones were killed; to discover, as they put it, “not just who pulled the trigger, but who pulled the strings”. An Fhirinne, which is Gaelic for “the truth”, now represents over 250 families. Their struggle has not been easy: “At the start we were dismissed as republican propaganda: the attitude was ‘how dare you try to assert that the British government could be involved in murdering its own citizens?’ But bits and pieces of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, began to come out and it got to the point where the British couldn’t hold it back anymore.”
The result was the Stevens inquiry. After eleven years of investigations, Sir John Stevens, former head of the Metropolitan Police and “hardly a republican sympathiser”, concluded that collusion had indeed taken place. “From about a million pages of evidence” explains Robert, “he was only allowed to publish twenty. But those twenty were damning”. Stevens concluded that he had amassed enough evidence to mount 25 prosecutions – including against senior RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary – the police), special branch and British military intelligence personnel. He handed this evidence to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions). Years passed, until finally, in 2007 – four years after being handed the files – the DPP announced that there would be no prosecutions. The state institutions would protect their own, no matter how great the evidence of their crimes. As Robert put it; “this was the British state covering up the mass murder of its own citizens”.
State cover up of murder is something of which Robert has personal experience. On December 4th 1971, McGurks Bar was blown up by a UVF bomb, causing the biggest single loss of life of the ‘Troubles’ until the Omagh bombing. His grandfather was amongst the fifteen killed. At the time, he says: “we hadn’t a clue about media, about press statements or anything else, we just knew our grandfather was dead. He was blown up, at 75 years of age, and within hours he was being called a bomber in the media. The British army, the RUC, the unionist politicians were all issuing the statement that this was an IRA bomb which my grandfather and the others had been making when it exploded prematurely. You’ve no idea the impact it had on my grandmother or my father. It’s hard enough to deal with a death, especially a brutal death like murder. But then on top of that to be told lies by the police…”. Six years later, whilst being interrogated over an unrelated murder, a UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) member named Robert Campbell admitted to being the getaway driver for the bombing that day.
In the early 1970s, this type of collusion – the institutions of state covering up loyalist killings – was the norm. What we now know is that both the RUC (the police) and the UDR (the army) were also arming the loyalist militias and providing them with intelligence: “This isn’t us whose saying this, this is a British government report that was unearthed in the public records at
What Stevens’ inquiries had unearthed, however, was that by the mid-80s collusion had shifted from this type of informal (albeit widespread) collaboration amongst people on the ground to a crucial plank of British state policy. Loyalist death squads had effectively become integrated into the British chain of command.
Finding the fingerprints of Brian Nelson, a leading member of loyalist militia the UDA, on British army documents, Stevens’ team had Nelson arrested. During his time in prison, Nelson admitted he was a British agent, and that far from being placed in the UDA to disrupt its operations, he was in fact there to facilitate them. Nelson, it emerged, had been given access to army intelligence files to improve the UDA’s targeting and assassinations, and had been aided by MI5 in facilitating the import of a huge arms shipment in from apartheid
However, the idea that Nelson and his handlers were simply ‘bad apples’, out of the control of the higher military and political authorities, says Robert, is demolished by what happened after Nelson was arrested: “Two weeks away from his trial, there was an extraordinary, unbelievable meeting that took place here in Belfast. At the meeting was the British Prime Minister, John Major; the head of all the six county judges, Brian Hutton; Basil Kelly, who was due to be the trial judge; the Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew who later became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; the head of the DPP at the time, and the head of the RUC. They didn’t want Nelson to get into the dock and blow their cover about how all these murder gangs had been allowed to proceed. So they came up with a plea bargain that was put to Nelson: If he would plead guilty to lesser charges, they’d ensure he didn’t spend too long in prison”. The multiple murder charges against him were dropped, and instead he was given a ten year sentence for conspiracy in a court case that lasted less than a day. He served less than half this sentence, and was announced dead the day the Stevens Inquiry report was published. Robert finds this hard to believe: “My gut instinct is that he is in
Nelson’s handler was a man named Gordon Kerr, of the Forces Research Unit, established under Thatcher essentially to professionalise collusion. His subsequent career demolishes the ‘bad apple’ theory even further: “He actually left the north under the cloud of being a mass murderer and involved in all these killings – but then went on to become British military attaché in
More evidence was unearthed by the 2007 report of the police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, into the killing of a young Protestant, Raymond MacCord jnr, by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force): “This case blew the lid off everything. She found that there was a UVF gang headed up by Mark Haddock which was responsible for almost 20 murders and he had his own special branch handlers who were using him and letting him do this. The first person he killed was a woman, a Catholic woman called Sharon McKenna. These people were being paid from the public purse – an allowance every week by their special branch handlers. And after he killed Sharon McKenna, he got an increase in the amount of money his handlers were paying him.” Shortly after releasing her report, O’Loan was replaced by a new ombudsman, Al Hutchinson – “in my opinion he is seen by the British government as a safe pair of hands, whose not going to rock the boat. He’s not measured up at all.” Last month,
Nevertheless, the evidence of collusion continues to mount, and the British government has adopted ever more contorted positions to avoid it coming out. A number of key cases, including Finucane’s and that of another solicitor Rosemary Nelson, were raised by Sinn Fein as part of the political negotiations with the British government at the
That collusion was taking place, however, has never been doubted by republican communities, as it was manifestly obvious in their daily lives, as Robert explains: “It was common knowledge at the time. We had 30,000 British troops on our streets. Now, the British army’s just fought a war in
Robert is like a walking encyclopaedia on these issues. The dates, the names, the places, roll off his tongue with ease. In the two and a half hours I spent with him, there is the basis for a book, never mind an article. Neither is what he is telling me hidden knowledge – it is public and openly available. And the enormity of it is staggering: “the biggest modern story of the British state” as he puts it: the state running death squads against its own citizens; and the personnel involved now doing the same thing around the rest of the world. And yet, “this story has never impacted in
But then, the media’s servility towards British policy in
“The idea of collusion is like a spider’s web. At one end you have the assassins who are provided with weapons, provided with information, and are then allowed to come into an area which has been full of military and is then cleared. The military are brought back to barracks, the death squad comes in, sledgehammers the door down, has a map of the house, goes up and does the killing and drives away. The police then arrive, and there is no proper investigation: no ballistics, no forensics - and no adequate prosecutions. In the case of John Stevens, he had twenty five files on some of the most senior police and army which he gives to the DPP on a plate. And they sat on it from 2003-2007. So that implicates then the DPP’s office, which implicates the whole of the legal and judicial system, not to mention the media. So if we are talking about collusion, we try to paint this picture of a spider’s web. Everybody, whether it’s MI5, RUC, special branch, police military intelligence, the civil servants, the media, the courts, the prosecution service, they’ve all at one point or another failed to do what they’re supposed to do.”
The answer? “We want some sort of independent international inquiry that’s independent of the British and Irish governments but will have the authority to subpoena witnesses. Not just republican, but loyalist or British cases as well. The British government try to portray this image to the world that they were peacekeepers trying to keep two warring factions apart, to stop the Catholics killing the Protestants and the Protestants killing the Catholics; instead of saying this was our colony and we were actively involved as combatants and participants on one side, namely the pro-British loyalist side. And what that meant in reality is that they armed the loyalists, they gave them information and then they let them loose on our community over a generational period and killed upwards of 1000 people. So they can’t then be the people that sit in judgement. We don’t want British judges coming over and bringing republicans and loyalists in, and saying 'tut tut that shouldn’t have happened, now do you want to tell your story?' And then the British state gets off scot-free.”