It’s been a tough month for a British government hoping to draw a line under its crimes during the 1969-1998 Troubles in Northern Ireland.
A series of court cases has undermined British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempts to end all prosecutions and inquiries during the conflict and has reminded us that some things are best not forgotten.
On December 13, the Belfast High Court announced a resolution to legal action against the British Ministry of Defence, where survivors and relatives of those killed in the 1975 Miami Showband murders are to receive close to £1.5m (about $2 million) in damages. Three of the famous Irish band were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries in a bomb and gun attack after their minibus was stopped on their return to Dublin from a gig. Relatives and survivors accuse the British military of having colluded in the killings.
Three days later the British Supreme Court ruled that the police in Northern Ireland had been wrong not to investigate the torture of 14 men in 1971, and that the police decision taken in 2014 not to pursue evidence had been “irrational.”
The 14, known as the Hooded Men, were tortured by British soldiers who, say the men, deprived them of sleep, food, and water, and beat them if they fell from standing in stress positions. There are striking similarities between these techniques and those used by the CIA decades later in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Some of the men also report being hooded and thrown from helicopters a few feet off the ground, but believing they were high up in the air.
The court decision was a blow to the British government, as was another the same day made by the same court, which ruled that the police in Northern Ireland were also wrong to claim they were sufficiently independent to carry out an investigation into the 1972 killing of Jean Smyth-Campbell. British soldiers are suspected of involvement in the death of the killing of the 24-year-old mother hit in the head by a single bullet while sitting in a car in Belfast.
The British government, as we have reported before, has stated it will introduce legislation to stop all such inquiries of human rights violations, including murders, committed during the Troubles, saying that surviving evidence in these cases is too weak to act on. But really it fears embarrassing new revelations about collusion between its military and intelligence services and Loyalist paramilitaries, and possible prosecutions of its former soldiers.
And the more information that comes out about the past the harder it will be for the British government to claim that these cases are too old to investigate.
Ciarán MacAirt runs the non-profit Paper Trail organization, which works with survivors of the conflict. His investigations have unearthed startling documents which reveal the thinking and actions of the British government during the 1970s and 1980s. It was his research in 2014 that discovered the British Army documents which led to the Jean Smyth-Campbell case court case.
“The British government wants to bury its war crimes in Ireland and protect its killers. The reason it wants to deny families equal access to due process of the law and assault their basic human rights, is that these brave, tenacious families and their advocates have been unrelenting in their pursuit of truth and justice. It may take these heroes half a century, but they are succeeding,” he told Human Rights First.
MacAirt’s grandparents were both in Belfast’s McGurk’s Bar when it was blown up in December 1971. His grandfather was one of 17 civilians injured, his grandmother one of 15 civilians killed. The bomb was planted by Loyalist paramilitaries, but the British authorities claimed it was an “own goal,” a bungled operation by Republican paramilitaries the IRA, suggesting that at least some of those in the bar were responsible for carrying or preparing a bomb to be used elsewhere when it exploded.
MacAirt’s tenacious research over many years has helped expose the truth about the massacre at McGurk’s, and many other attacks.
It’s the efforts by MacAirt and others – including human rights NGO the Pat Finucane Centre – in uncovering new evidence that the authorities in Britain fear, and so are rushing to close down all official inquiries into the Troubles.
1971 and 1972 marked the most violent period of the Troubles, and we are already into a series of 50th anniversary commemorations, stark reminders of British military abuses, and repeated failures to hold soldiers to account.
In May of this year, Belfast Coroner Justice Keegan found that at least nine of the ten people shot dead at Ballymurphy in Belfast in August 1971 were killed by the British military. The victims were “all entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question,” she said.
Earlier this month saw the 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar massacre, and next month will mark 50 years since the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry. In January 1972, as a civil rights march in the city drew to an end, British paratroopers attacked the marchers, shooting dead 13 unarmed civilians, six of them still legally children, and wounding another 18, one of whom subsequently died.
Five months later will be 50 years since the killings of five more people by British soldiers at Springhill/Westrock in Belfast.
Human Rights First has a long history of advocacy on the conflict in Northern Ireland, and will be part of the commemorations in Derry next month to advocate against the British government’s proposed legislation to grant amnesty to its former soldiers. We’re also exploring ways to support those investigating the newly-available documents into these and other abuses.
“Britain is still at war with us. Information is today’s battlefield and families are again on the frontline. That is why the information retrieval and truth recovery work of families, charities, and NGOs are needed now more than ever.” said MacAirt.