Why does murder by the State seem fine to Theresa Villiers? – asks John Loughran

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At the weekend I read Theresa Villiers’s oral statement to the British House of Commons on Tuesday. Presenting her assessment of ‘the structure role, and purpose of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland’ she highlighted that “there are still serious legacy issues that need to be addressed”. On the need to engage seriously with legacy issues there is little political disagreement but there is a clear disagreement by what comprises ‘legacy issues’.

The thrust of her oral statement was however highly controversial if you were a victim of British state actions who seeks the truth. Disturbingly her oral statement reaffirmed and reintroduced the controversial ‘hierarchy of victimhood’ while failing to acknowledge Britain’s central conflict role.

So notwithstanding the content of the report (which has been discussed widely) the oral statement of Ms Villiers on behalf of the British government is of itself worthy of comment. The statement gave an insight into the thinking that shapes the British conflict narrative which has been was constructed to simply reassert an untenable, misleading and factually incorrect assessment that the state was neutral and independent in the North of Ireland over a 40 year period.

Core to her narrow construction of legacy is an understanding that the British state seeks to absolve itself for its conflict actions and policies. Indeed there is emerging state ‘revisionism’ that is itself a barrier to engaging honestly with legacy issues. It is this thinking that represents a grave threat to the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanism – as it seeks to predetermine any outcome.

This ‘revisionism’ is not new. Its most recent outing was at the 2015 Conservative party conference when Ms Villiers said her government would “never accept any attempt to re-write history or legitimise the actions of those who pursued their aims by the bullet or the bomb”. This mirrors a similar speech at the British Irish Association in 2013 when she made reference, to “those who believe that the security forces operated outside the law”. In Ms Villiers public statements it is quite obvious that she is blind to the impact of British state conflict actions and policies over the last 40 years. More concerning it is pretty hard to find any coherent reference in any of her public statements that acknowledges the conflict status of the British state.

And this is after the indisputable evidence of the practice and policy of collusion as outlined in the Stevens Report, De Silva and the direct state killings on Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Springhill and the New Lodge. Seriously? Why, no acknowledgment, recognition or taking responsibility for British state conflict actions? Indeed such omissions themselves raise questions about the intention and motivation of the British state to honouring its legacy obligations.

As disturbingly Ms Villiers’s oral statement reaffirmed the hierarchy of victimhood as she stated that: “the thoughts of the House should be with all those who suffered directly at the hands of paramilitary organisations”. I get that and I respect that sentiment. What I do not get is the lack of reference or acknowledgment of the grief, loss and injury of all those who suffered at the hands of British state forces. Furthermore in attributing responsibility “for over 3,000 murders” to paramilitary groups she omits the countless hundreds killed directly by the British army, hundreds more killed by the practice of collusion and those tortured. This is just insulting. It does indeed require clarification from Ms Villiers as to her provocative intent?

Of course Republicans and Loyalists have fundamental questions to answer and have a duty to assist victims. But this does not absolve the British (and indeed Irish) state from taking responsibility for their conflict actions, practices and policies. Ms Villiers invoking a national security veto is one way of restricting any investigation of state culpability in the conflict. This prompted the Committee on the Administration of Justice to highlight that “deliberately vague and undefined grounds of ‘national security’ in effect can mean whatever she wants it to mean.” (23 September, 2015)

This ‘national security’ veto outlined by Ms Villiers also seems at odds with commentary from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton made in the aftermath of the RTE Collusion documentary. He said he would hand over the police “vault” of information on conflict killings to an independent body investigating the past. The Chief Constable was significantly more rounded stating: “I don’t think we should be exempt from scrutiny from investigation in the police service, past or present. I think that’s good… but I actually think other people have stories to tell and questions to answer.”

Furthermore Ms Villiers’s approach that engaged the PSNI and MI5 in common enterprise to compile this recent report unquestionably put politics and unresolved legacy questions back at the core of policing. This is not where this society need to be: this approach has rolled back two years of progress to when the NIO and PSNI were in the High Court to challenge a democratic decision by the DCAL Minister Carál Ní Chuilín who released historic papers. This approach has also raised confidence issues in the motive and intent of the PSNI.

This wreckless approach to legacy from Ms Villiers fundamentally seeks to alter the core principle of independence that was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. Her sleight of hand reflects a deep concern to protect the practices and policies of the British state to public and international scrutiny while it also speaks to a panic about what the information in PSNI ‘vaults’ may contain. Arguably Ms Villiers’s approach now makes it extremely difficult and puts pressure on the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton not to open the archive and information ‘vault’. No doubt his best efforts to take the past out of policing will be tested in the period ahead. There is now ample evidence that Ms Villiers restricted understanding of the legacy issues is a cynical attempt to determine the outcome of any wider legacy processes. It is that plain and simple!

So what wasn’t included in the Secretary of State’s oral statement?

Clearly there was no recognition of the loss of those killed by the British state. On Thursday night I was at a legacy information event hosted by Relatives for Justice, a group which works to support families bereaved in the conflict. Contributor after contributor recounted stories of loss and bereavement. Many raised questions of the British state and the intelligence agencies in the act of death, cover up or failure to investigate killings. Indeed it is not only a serious concern that the loss of these families has yet to be acknowledged but more disturbingly the same agencies (implicated in deaths) are presented as ‘independent’.

So as you can see it is hardly credible and indeed could be understood as offensive by families bereaved by the British state, when she unconditionally “thanks in large part the efforts of the police and our armed forces” for ensuring that the “the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by democracy and consent” while not acknowledging their loss alongside those killed as she describes “by hands of paramilitary organisations”. That is not to question the integrity or motivation of individuals of all police or army but it does raise significant questions when there is no recognition of the corporate role in conflict.

By Thursday evening Ms Villiers’s oral statement was directly challenged by the Director of Public Prosecutions. He was initiating an investigation into the activities of Stakeknife. The actions of this agent provide a clear lens into British government’s ‘dirty war’ policy and the corporate role of the agencies charged with directing his actions. This ‘dirty war’ policy engaged, supported and directed agents and informers who proceeded to play human chess with the lives of so many in pursuit of joint political and military objectives.

So the DPP will now investigate the same state agencies that ran agents, were involved in state killings that Ms Villiers praised just 48 hours earlier. Of equal significance they were from the same agencies that provided information into this paramilitary report.

Engaging with the past will require the honest efforts of all conflict actors. It will require the Chief Constable George Hamilton to open the ‘vault’. It will require full co-operation from Republicans and Loyalists: this is what victims deserve and what is needed to deliver truth.

This will require Ms Villiers and the British government to fulfil their legal obligations to facilitate the right to truth to families. It will require an end to the use of the national security veto. It will require an admission that “there has been virtual impunity for the state actors” as described by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks. It will require much more honesty and a step change from the tone and context of Ms Villiers’s past legacy statements. Only time will tell.

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About Author

John Loughran is a Member of Relatives for Justice a support group that works to support families bereaved through the conflict. He is also a member of the Victims and Survivors Forum. He has recently completed an LLM in Human Rights Law focussing on the contribution of ‘unofficial’ truth projects to wider processes of dealing with the past in the north of Ireland.


  1. A fine and detailed commentary, John. I’d just add that she’s being consistent with just about every other SoS here and with the spokespeople for unionist parties. Why is it that republicans can express regret for their action – even loyalist paramilitaries on a good day – but unionist and British politicians stick rigidly to the narrative line ‘It was the IRA wot dun it’.

    • “Why is it…”

      First of all, is it; and secondly, it may be the case that this is the view (some) republicans have of unionists because they are not really listening.

      That, and pejorative headlines, and phrases, Jude, might be useful ‘click-bait’, but they’re hardly balanced.

  2. The constant looking backwards that pervades Northern Ireland life needs to be addressed. The constant revisiting of the Troubles results in those that were born post Agreement are being brought into the confllict by the revisiting of history with a view to apportion blame.
    Perhaps there is a solution. If it is agreed that there was a war, then we apply those conventions to the post conflict discussion. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein refer to war when it suits, but prefer to use the civilian, non war legal system to seek redress for what were undoubtedly on occasion acts by the British State that were unacceptable in a non war scenario, but the actions of a state involved in a war.
    The Second World War ended in 1945 and by 1956 the Common Market was up and running. There was an agreement to move on, and unless there were exceptional circumstances, former enemies worked together, rather than spending all their time and energy in blame mongering.
    We are taking longer, and with new enquiries being announced with monotonous regularity, we will live more and more in the past. This is not good for our young people who should be prioritised at every opportunity.

      • I’m a young person from Northern Ireland and I am torn. Legacy issues are important and it is true what Ray points out that after WW2 there was not the same systematic obfuscation that we have here at the behest of the British government. What happened was understood, more or less, and misunderstandings between nations did not have the same impact because territories did not overlap.

        But on the other hand, I would love to focus on the future but end up watching old, angry men and women bicker and insult each other, sometimes with real justification, usually without. Completely partisan an a place that is, but does not need to be anymore. Tim has a point in that I feel myself being dragged into a battle which is not mine, certainly not in the same way it is for the generation before.

        I think we need a clearer duality tour political discussions here. I don’t mean the usual duality, but a clearer distinction between the young and the old. That is how post-WW2 Europe really moved on.

    • It’s wrong to push human rights abuses to one side in an attempt for bystanders to ‘move on’ and leave the suffering to deepen. We could do well to educate everyone in a human rights respecting culture. That means aknowledging those most effected by the conflict, and defiantly not sweeping the past under the carpet. That’s is unfair and morally wrong. The needs of older people is as important as younger people. Whose wants an ageist society? In fact if we don’t attend to the pain and suffering in the older generation the conflict will be transmissions to the younger generation. There can be understanding between the generations, that’s the best pace.

  3. John,
    A detailed analysis and one that I largely agree with but I do have some observations/opinions to add if you’ll permit me.
    I find it interesting that I am the 8th to comment on this piece but side by side on this very site sits a poignant piece by Paul Gallagher without comment. To be clear I absolutely do not include yourself or fine genuine people like Relatives For Justice or other victims groups in this but I find myself wondering where are the comments from so many who regularly over the years have appeared in/on the media stating how sure they are that they speak for all victims. Can they, like yourself and others mentioned above, not speak TO victims such as Paul even to the extent of placing a comment on his excellent piece?

    The victims constituency is a complex grouping, probably even more complex than the conflict that created us (victims). We are a complex constituency within many complex constituencies within this complex society in which we live. We deserve to be treated with more respect than the hand-washing antics that the secretary of State (SOS) has accorded in her latest utterances.

    I don’t really believe in coincidence and I don’t really think that anything occurs in isolation. I am no conspiracy junkie but do think there has been a sequence of occurrences spanning recent months which indicate a desire by the Westminster Government to absolve itself of all responsibility regarding our recent armed conflict with the exception of again trying to position itself as a peacekeeper between warring native barbarians. This is a totally untenable position and it won’t wash now, just as it never washed in the past.

    Sequencing, timing and conditioning are crucial in the world of politics and propaganda but in a population as astute as ours transparent attempts at cover-up just don’t work. We are also VERY suspicious of everything. That is why my immediate thought on the recent bomb explosion at MI5 was to be suspicious as to whether it was smuggled in or exploded prematurely on its’ way out. Not so ridiculous a thought when compared to the murder and mayhem visited on this population by the faceless spooks who ran/run many murdering agents here over a period of decades.

    But to get to my many points and questions!

    Quoting the SOS makes it sound like she is actually responsible when she is in fact just the latest mouthpiece voicing the unchanged position of successive Westminster Governments. If she thought it was okay to murder human beings here she wouldn’t bother continuing endless cover-up. A more appropriate question might have been to ask, Why does SOS continue cover-up when successive British Governments know the truth and know that their actions were wrong?

    I was present at Feile an Phobal when Martin Mc Guinness stated clearly that the truth IS going to come out. The Chief Constable (the other half of the panel) seemed to have little problem with this and indicated (if I understood him correctly) that he would release approximately 1m documents to the new HIU. He also gave assurances that his service would go wherever the evidence took them although he clearly didn’t grasp why there was a problem in employing ex RUC in various roles until quite recently. Like myself, I think many people present left that event with renewed hope that the truth MIGHT actually come out. The leader of the UUP also attended that event and I find myself wondering did he leave with a similar feeling or impression. If so, was this anything to do with the real reason he walked out of Stormont? ‘Big House Unionists’ might well have a lot to fear should the truth come out about who really caused many of the conflict related deaths and injuries. Not too many firebrand unionist/loyalist leaders dirtied their hands at the blunt end when loyalist death squads killed with impunity. Is this the real reason for the manufactured crap about the existence or not of the IRA?

    At another event I heard William ‘Plum’ Smith explain the difficulty loyalist ex-prisoners have within their own community and how this was the first period of conflict where there had actually been numbers of loyalists imprisoned. I came away thinking that loyalists, and particularly ex-prisoners as opposed to Unionists, really need to get their story and their rationale out there. It fitted well with the other events and again evidenced a new level of willingness to engage.

    Within the same timeframe came the Department of Justice (DOJ) briefing regarding progress on their area within the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). And it was at this meeting the sequencing changed gear. I listened as cold water was poured over a multi-track and comprehensive approach to legacy (thrashed out in the SHA) by the introduction of ‘National security’. Here then was the sequencing leading to the SOS statement of last week and the latest washing of the hands. It was not missed at the DOJ briefing but questions by me and at least one other went unanswered. I asked several questions but was bluntly advised that I had been given enough leeway even though I got no answers.

    The final pieces of sequencing came when loyalists demanded an end to all conflict related prosecutions and a place at talks etc. The PUP conference also heard from George Hamilton that he would go where evidence takes him and just days later the all new really nice loyalist paramilitary council was announced – jump in SOS.

    In any other conflict the SOS as spokesperson for THE major combatant grouping would have no problem with admitting their role in collusion, arming, training and directing armed militia. But this was not any other conflict and the problem for SOS and successive governments is that, in this conflict, they and their surrogates killed their own citizens and they killed them in large numbers. And let me be crystal clear on this point – the many hundreds of individual killings are equally tragic, wrong and in need of resolution to the same measure as those killings where there was high profile or multiple deaths.

    I agree with Paul Gallagher’s sentiment that Loyalists should be given another chance and hope that they don’t squander it this time. That said, I consider their call for an end to prosecutions and a place at the negation table to be unrealistic. A place at the negotiation table needs to be earned through the ballot box and (although I personally see little merit in historical prosecutions) those victims who wish to see prosecutions should not have any doors slammed in their face. And this last point is where the SOS has a potentially fatal flaw in her defence – loyalists and agents on the republican side know who they colluded with, who REALLY ordered and facilitated murder and who has not been held to account. Perhaps we should abandon our fixation with ex-prisoners, fully integrate them to society (in recognition of THEIR substantial contribution to the peace) and cease the disgusting discrimination against them.
    In finishing I would like to say that I attended the recent PUP Conference as a guest. I was made welcome and it was made explicitly clear that I could speak without censure should I wish to. What I experienced was a serious political event with serious political motions, speakers and presentations. The impression I left with was that the PUP are serious about becoming a more relevant political force and they are determined to step from the shadow of Big House Unionism (my words). Just like the new loyalist council – the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. But while they prepare their menu perhaps they will think about an ingredient of which I have heard no mention at any of the events mentioned by me here and that is the essential ingredient of stating that loyalists will support truth recovery and engage with their victims. Should they actually do this then SOS will need more than ‘National Security’ to hold the floodgates.

  4. Time to compensate ALL victims families and grant unconditional Amnesty for everyone involved. Have a Victims/Reconciliation day. The UK response will ensure this all could drag on into another generation. An Amnesty is needed to let UK keep her dirty secrets & take the pressure off the future. After all the first killers including the RUC who murdered 9yr old P.Rooney in his bed by use of 40mm wall shattering, battle-field bullets from a Shoreland armoured car were given a Totally Unconditional Amnesty. If they had been punished the Conflict may not have happened.

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