The trouble with our ‘Troubles’ Investigations

Our society remains – in large parts – bitter and divided. Our inability to deal with our past has become a festering sore that will inevitably and sadly shape our future unless legacy Troubles-related crimes are dealt with in a balanced, proportionate and fair manner.

This means finding a mechanism to deal with all victims of our troubled past.

The Historical Investigation Unit (HIU) envisaged as part of the Stormont House Agreement is meant to find a way forward in dealing with that very issue but by its nature it does not address legacy in the fullest of terms. Presently the HIU is designed to take over from the PSNI Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) which in turn took over from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

Both the HET and now the LIB are seen in some quarters as not being impartial or independent in investigating legacy issue. This is something I totally disagree with and something that will create investigatory issues for years to come.

Forgotten victim from early 70s

There is however a bigger issue that needs to be understood. That is, if the HIU comes into being in its present form, it will only investigate troubles related deaths and will not touch on any other legacy crime. This means those individuals critically injured by terrorist or state actions, attempted murder, causing an explosion, collusion where there has been no fatality or legacy sexual crime will not be investigated.

This issue of sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war is globally well known and many would think of conflicts in Africa and more recently in the Middle-East where it has been shown to be a weapon of choice for many armed groups. However, we are yet to explore sexual violence and rape within our own society during the Troubles as a manifestation of the conflict.

It is absolutely clear that sexual violence and rape did occur during the Troubles but because we are a highly divided society many found it hard to go to the police especially if they came from a nationalist or republican area. One notable exception was Máiría Cahill who waived her right to anonymity to bravely point an accusing finger at the IRA member who had raped her. More than that, she outlined the vile circumstances that followed were she was subjected to an IRA investigation, forced to face the accused rapist and was finally ostracised by her own community.

Máiría Cahill

The reason for this vile and doubly abusive behaviour against Máiría Cahill was not to get to the truth but clearly to deter other women from coming forward. After all who wants to face the attitude reflected with the words:

“Well you know, Maíría, abusers can be extremely manipulative. And you know . . . sometimes they are that manipulative that the people who have been abused actually enjoy it.”

To date the Garda Siochana and the PSNI have been given the names of around 54 IRA abusers. Some have clear evidence against them because individuals – who are equally as brave as Máiría Cahill – have come forward to name their abusers. Their cases will be heard in due course. Others have unfortunately been unable to come forward due to their circumstances, and as a result, this has in many cases resulted in serial sexual predators being free to roam our streets to abuse others.

Of course this is not solely an issue within the IRA and it is as clear that loyalists also used gender based violence and rape as a method of control. This can be seen in the case of Ann Ogilby beaten to death by UDA women while her young daughter sat crying in the room next door or Lorraine McCausland – raped beaten and dumped after attending a loyalist drinking club.

At least the families of these two women will or should receive a full investigation by the HIU but only because the crime ended in death. Had it not – had it been recorded purely as sexual violence or rape – it would not be on the HIU workflow.

We have separated gender base violence from the Troubles and in doing so we have abandoned many victims.

The bottom line is that here in Northern Ireland, once the HIU has been set up, there will be no mechanisms to investigate such crimes. Sexual violence will go largely unpunished and an apology, as given by the Director of Public Prosecution Barra McGrory to Máiría Cahill and two other women in 2015, will be all that is left to offer.

How can we possibly allow society to move to a situation where illegal activities up to but not including murder, can go without being investigated? Not excluding the fact that those innocent victims critically injured during the troubles do not even find their fight for a pension feature in the proposed legacy bill.

Innocent victim Paul Gallagher

The PSNI may well say these crimes will sit on the statute books but they will also say that they do not have the resources to investigate them. As a result, there will be a virtual amnesty for individuals who have perpetrated some of the most vile acts against some of our most vulnerable.

These perpetrators will continue to stalk our society in positions of authority and influence while many victims will have to suffer the indignity of being ignored.

Justice for the living is as equally important as justice for the dead.

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Security first

There is no such thing as a racing certainty but – ironically, tragically and unconscionably – the closest you’d get in these troubled times is a continuation of the decline in the number of members of the armed forces.

 

There can be no doubt – and I am in absolutely no doubt – that the primary role of the state is to protect its citizens: their lives and their limbs, and their property. Everything that follows – healthcare, economic prosperity, education – is dependent on national and personal security.


imageSo you would like to think, indeed you would expect, that the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen (and this argument extends to the police and the security services) reflects the current needs of the nation.

 It goes without saying that there will be times that greater strength is required, and times when less is required. But it should also go without saying that you have some contingency, some slack in the system, that allows for a robust and rapid response to reasonably-perceived threats.

 

Threats such as terrorism.

 

So how have we come to the situation where successive recent administrations have presided over a steady decline in personnel numbers and there are reports that more is to come?

 

At the height of World War II there were 10,000 service personnel in per 100,000 UK citizens.

 

During Suez it was around 1,500.

 

During The Troubles and the Falklands 600.

 

Kosovo and Sierra Leone, 350.

 

Iraq and Afghanistan, 300.

 

Today… 220, the lowest ratio for a century.


Defence is not merely a numbers game; the War on Terror is not just about ‘boots on the ground’, it is also about deploying technology. But you can monitor as many social media sites as you like; without someone to act on the intelligence gathered you are impotent.


At times like this it should be a case of all hands on deck. There will be empire builders who, even in the face of the carnage, protect the interests of their own establishments, cliques and enclaves. But any politician or government worth voting for will tear down the walls, bang heads together and ensure any of those charged with looking after the rest of us are appropriately funded, resourced and staffed.

 

As an old soldier, as the UUP’s justice spokesman, as an ordinary citizen of Northern Ireland, as a human who shares the revulsion and horror of recent and past terror attacks, I understand the need for law and order, for adequate national defence, for security services that are up to the job of keeping us safe.


Our security and defence are being sub-contracted out to private firms – something I don’t have a problem with as long as these firms are robustly regulated. In fact I know many of those who serve within these companies, as CEOs, trainers, or operationally deployed are ex UK military and police. It is a skill set that must be utilised and not left redundant. But it should not replace or undermine our military and security capability or capacity but enhance it. 

 

I abhor conflict. I long for peace. But while there are those who think otherwise you need to be ready for both.

 

Beyond party politics: looking at the person

By Philip Gomm

I first met Doug Beattie a decade ago. Battered and bruised, he was sitting quietly beside a make-shift airstrip in the Afghan desert.

I was in the depths of Helmand as a television reporter.

DSC_8915

Doug was there carrying out his duty. His face was battered and bruised. He was far from family and friends, far from most of his colleagues in the Royal Irish Regiment, just an old soldier dispatched to do his nation’s bidding; trying to ensure the security of his own country and protect the innocent people of the country he had been sent to.

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Sat there under camouflage netting, and in the face of my persistent questioning, he told me his story. It was not hard to get a measure of the man. He spoke openly but modestly, emotionally but not angrily. He recounted his recent bloody exploits against the Taliban and a more distant past encapsulating service across the globe in the interests of those who needed help.

We have been friends ever since.

It came as no surprise to me when, years later, after returning to Northern Ireland for good, he entered the political arena on his doorstep. As a unionist councillor, as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and now as a candidate in the Westminster election.

Today politics is, for many of us, a dirty word. Its participants viewed with disdain. Yet my opinion is that there are still those attracted to politics for the right reasons rather than the wrong; because they want to make a positive difference, not put their snouts in the trough. My personal view is that Doug Beattie is one of those good men.

To my mind politics requires participants – the public and the politicians – to go beyond the partisan. UUP, DUP, SDLP or no bloody P at all, there are times when choosing which candidate to vote for is as much about the type of person they are as it is the party they represent.

You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to always agree with them. But you do have to believe that they will stand up for your rights and those of everyone else in the community; that they will champion their constituency and fight to make it prosper.

They must act with integrity and honesty, not vanity or boast. They should wear their hearts on their sleeve but make decisions with their head.

In my experience Doug Beattie tries to do all these things. He is not perfect. Far from it. He is not always right. But he strives to be both.

I won’t have the opportunity to vote for Doug Beattie. I only wish I did.

Philip Gomm is a former ITV journalist. He is now Head of External Communications for the RAC Foundation. This is a personal view.

No need for international team to investigate Troubles’ deaths

I’ve worked alongside an international police force – a United Nations’ operation to fill the law and order vacuum left in post-conflict Kosovo after the withdrawal of the Serbs. It worked there. Indeed, it had to work for there was no alternative. Foreign expertise needed to be drafted in.

That is not always the case.

Take Northern Ireland.

The clamour around Stormont for an Historic Investigations Unit (HIU) has been voluble and persistent, with a proposed remit to investigate the 1,800 Troubles-related deaths, including around 400 attributed to the military, police and other forces of the state.

All well and good; except we already have an effective and professional police force. It’s called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and interacts on an equal standing with colleagues across the UK, not to mention the Garda Siochana and Interpol.

The PSNI has its own section dedicated to exploring the events of recent history: the Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB).

With all this in place it is hard to see why an HIU would deliver a better result for the friends and family of the deceased who, rightly, still demand answers. It is harder still to see why the HIU would need to recruit from abroad – not just Ireland and the rest of the UK, but continental Europe and even South Africa – to carry out its work.

In effect it will be an international police force, with a strength of between 250-300 investigators and other staff, working parallel to the PSNI but very separate from it.

The HIU will be neither servants nor agents of the crown but an autonomous force with operational control falling to the Director of the HIU, not the PSNI Chief Constable. It will have a substantial budget allocated by the Department of Justice through the policing board and is set to run for an initial five years, with the provision for one year extensions.

The resources being muted for the HIU are impressive. But why could those same resources not be allocated to the PSNI team?

The Ulster Unionist Party is the only political party at the Stormont Castle talks who are against any form of international police force being brought into Northern Ireland to police its citizens. Which is not the same as saying that the LIB should not be regularly reviewed to ensure it is compliant with the ideals of the proposed HIU. If there are shortcomings in the current set up then why not correct them rather than dismantle an already-established system?

Northern Ireland is not Kosovo. There is no law and order vacuum here and there is no requirement for a parallel international police force operating alongside the PSNI to investigate UK citizens.

Revisiting A Memory 

It’s not the booming sound you would normally associate with an explosion – it is something more muffled, almost restrained, that marks out a suicide bomb exploding. In the moment of detonation the air is filled with smoke, debris, shrapnel and something else – a thin red mist.
The coppery taste and smell of blood invades your senses. There is a smell of burning; of clothes and of flesh. The damage will have been done instantaneously by shipyard confetti – nails, nuts, bolts, ball bearings – scything through skin and bone.

In the second or two after the blast, an unreal silence falls, with people stunned to a standstill, grasping to comprehend the almost incomprehensible.

The quiet passes all too quickly and then the screaming starts: the injured crying out for help, the survivors searching for friends and relatives, the newly-bereaved overwhelmed by the loss of loved ones.

The utterly devastating assault of a suicide bomb explosion on the body and mind defies adequate description. Perhaps that is for the good. One cannot understand such an attack unless you are there to witness it, but if you do then you wish you had been anywhere else in the world but there.

I know all this because I have been on hand for two such attacks; one in 2006, the other in 2008. Both in Afghanistan.

Each was devastating: several people left dead, many injured, many more traumatised. You may leave the scene of the blast but the memory of it follows you home. There will be days, weeks, months when I forget. And then something happens and it all comes flooding back. Something like Manchester. And with a horrific twist.

For my experiences were not wholly unexpected. I was a man in uniform. A soldier. A target. But not necessarily the people who died around me. But the killing at the concert cannot be explained away as a legitimate act of war. It was an act of terror, of hate, of butchery.

Yet, I also know the pain of watching children die. For the other vivid, blood-red memory I carry from Afghanistan is that of Shabia. A tiny girl with terrible, mortal injuries caused by a British Army shell. In the last moments of her life she was thrust at me by her grieving, accusing grandfather.

The old man did not speak my language. He did not need to. For the message was clear in his eyes. They were pleading eyes, accusing eyes, helpless eyes.

It did not matter to him, or to me, that I had not fired the mortar bomb that did the damage. I was guilty by association. It was a term I hate but one that explains it easiest – collateral damage.

I think of Shabia often. When I look at my own children and grandchildren. When I look at coverage of events like Manchester. 

I will never hide from my part in the devastation of war but I tell myself there is a difference. And I believe there is. A big one.

In Afghanistan, I know that we did everything we could to avoid innocent casualties. It was the thing we feared most. I would have given anything to have changed what happened that day.

But in Manchester, the bomber did everything he could to cause innocent casualties. The people he slaughtered were not collateral damage; they were the focus of the attack.

Politically Unpopular Conflict

Afghanistan-Taliban

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

It is a soldier’s job to fight wars, to close with and kill the enemy, to follow orders even though the consequence may be death or serious injury. It is the soldier who knows fear and faces hardship. Even if their endeavours are successful they are quickly forgotten. And if those endeavours are seen as ending in failure then abandonment follows faster still.

But if a soldier’s lot is to go to war it is the politician who sends them to war to stand by them. After all, it is often politicians’ failure to deal with global frictions that result in conflict and they are no less responsible for the fallout that follows.

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Helmand 2010

Therefore, for soldiers like me, it is incredibly frustrating when politicians distance themselves from decisions they take individually and collectively, leaving it instead to the soldier to bear the blame.

The starkest example of this is surely the Iraq war. While I am proud of my actions and the actions of the men I commanded in Iraq, I fully understand how controversial the war was and still is. Yet I will never distance myself from that conflict; I will recount with pride the part that soldiers of my regiment played and I will do so without shame.

Yet I feel that some politicians are happy to pretend the Iraq conflict never happened; they find it inconvenient, embarrassing and calculate that it is potentially poisonous with the electorate.

David Simpson, an outgoing Member of Parliament and candidate in the 2017 General Election did not vote for the Iraq war – he was not an MP at the time. Though to his credit he did visit the troops in Iraq in 2008.

He could, quite rightly, have highlighted this show of solidarity as part of this campaign. But he has not.

Instead he airbrushes the episode from history, focussing instead on a visit made in 2010 to see serving men and women in Afghanistan.

Iraq

Facebook Post Dec 2010

The tragedy for the politician – and for politicians in general, for episodes like this taint everyone seeking public trust and public office – is that Mr Simpson never actually made that journey.

His trip was cancelled a month before he was due to depart; a month before the photo he has used in his latest campaign literature was posted on Facebook in an album entitled ‘Afghanistan’.

Only he will know why he sought to create something out of nothing; fabricate an occasion that did not happen; ignore the valuable trip he actually did make to Iraq. But it is not just Mr Simpson who has to live with the consequences, so must we all. The trust between soldier and politician is eroded; already-fragile public respect for our elected representatives is chipped away further still; democracy is sullied just a little more. And for me there is a personal element.

Simpson

General Election 2017 Literature

For back in 2010 when David Simpson was posting a picture on Facebook of him supposedly in Afghanistan and attracting comments such as “Well done, David, we’re proud of you” I was in Afghanistan, dealing with the death of a friend and colleague, killed on Remembrance Sunday.

The irony is that there are other members of the DUP – David Simpson’s party – who did visit the troops, notably Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who came to see my unit in Nad-e-Ali in January 2011.

He knows how important it is to hear first-hand the issues soldiers face, the real life and death challenges. He is also a man who will not distance himself from unpopular conflicts – not least because he, like me, has served in the armed forces.

Of course some will say this blog is political opportunism and I will allow them that indulgence, but I would have raised this issue had David Simpson been my political opponent or not. The truth being I am staggered others are attacking me for speaking out and challenging on this issue.

Andy A

Standing with Andy Allen at DCMH Thiepval Bks

This is not a matter of party politics. It is more fundamental than that. It is about personal integrity. It is about how anyone believes they can look voters in the eye knowing they have served up a falsehood; knowing they have stood on the shoulders of the brave men and women of our armed forces in order to promote themselves.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity” – but I will never hide or deny my part in it be that as a soldier or politician.

Note: Since this blog was posted David Simpson has withdrawn his election leaflet and removed the Facebook page in question. He has, however, not given an explanantion as to why he mislead the elctorate in the first place.

Cost versus benefit – should role of the Gurkhas be widened?

(First published on C4 News website)

The manpower of the British Army is now at its lowest level for more than 200 years. At around 82,000 soldiers this is fewer than during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the Ministry of Defence hopes to retain its capabilities and its tempo of operations. That is a questionable and ambitious goal given the volatile nature of the world today.

In recent times, some 21,000 British soldiers have been cut from the order of battle: men and women from Scottish regiments, historic English regiments — some of the oldest infantry units in the army.

The strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas has remained virtually undiminished since those recent cuts. However their numbers were drastically cut in the 1990s when the army as a whole was restructured from the Cold War footing of the years before.

These men (there are no women, though this is set to change) have served the Crown for 201 years. Native (Nepalese-born) Gurkhas have won 13 Victoria Crosses and are rightly viewed as a model of loyalty; an institution within an institution. And it is another British institution — the actress Joanna Lumley — who long fought to secure rights for the Gurkhas that were commensurate with other soldiers who serve the UK. Chief amongst those rights were pension entitlements.

Ms Lumley secured her victory. In 2007 the government said that it would put Gurkhas on an equal pension footing and backdate this allowance to 1997, the point at which the Gurkhas’ home base moved to the UK. Some ex Gurkhas have complained that the equitable provision should pre-date 1997 but their claim was dismissed this September by the European Court of Human Rights.

Ms Lumley’s efforts were clearly in tune with the Great British public. But have her achievements actually weakened rather than strengthened the long-term future of the Brigade of Gurkhas as a core part of the UK’s military offering?

For while the cost of employing a Gurkha has risen, his flexibility has not.

Each man who joins the Gurkhas goes through a rigorous selection process in Nepal (paid for by the MOD). The successful candidates are then transported to the UK (paid for by the MOD) undergo military training which includes English lessons (paid for by the MOD). After five years they are entitled to what is known as long leave, six months at home in Nepal, during which time they are again supported by the MOD (though this too is set to change). Of course the MOD is not spending its own money. It is spending taxpayer cash. Our money.

So what do we get in return? Obedience and bravery, unquestionably. The fighting record of the Gurkhas is second to none. And yet in modern times soldiering has not been limited to warfare in far-flung places. And this is where the Gurkhas limitations are revealed, for what they don’t possess is utility.

The Northern Ireland conflict dragged on for 30 years yet not one Gurkha unit served on what was known as Op Banner. Nor did they turn out to help with the fire strike in 2002 that drew in 18,000 military personnel. And they were also absent from the Foot and Mouth disease front line. In fact they have not and never will help with any task that supports the UK civil power. Why? Because the memorandum of understanding with Nepal prohibits it. Simply put, if the Gurkhas were the last troops on the island when civil order broke down they would not deploy to restore it. To that end they have less flexibility than your average soldier.

What the Gurkhas do possess is the ability to recruit and recruit quickly. Having reduced the size of the military to an all-time low, by keeping the Brigade of Gurkhas the British Army can be rapidly enlarged should the need arise. But retaining these men of honour has meant that other men of honour, men from the UK, have found themselves out of a job.

I am Northern Irish. I served in an Irish regiment. That regiment was once the largest in the British Army. Now it is the smallest. There are more Gurkhas currently serving in the British Army than there are Irishmen. In total, Irish-born service personnel have won 188 VCs (of 1,355 awarded) yet that illustrious history counted for nothing as we were decimated in similar style to all those other units that have their roots in the UK.

If the Gurkhas really want equality then their usefulness should be subjected to the same objective scrutiny lavished on other regiments and corps. In the interests of fairness, surely no one — Ms Lumley included – could disagree with that?

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