Policing Politics: Dealing with the Past an Ongoing PSNI Train Wreck

Policing Politics: Dealing with the Past an Ongoing PSNI Train Wreck
Balaclava Street
13 February, 2015

The recent tribulations surrounding the PSNI’s attempts to gain access to Winston Rea’s Belfast Project tapes are yet another dismal but unsurprising instalment in this episodic train wreck.

As noted by Ed Moloney, it reeks of counter-balancing, a politically-motivated attempt at even-handedness after the previous arrests of Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell, and other republicans.

This entire debacle, brought about by Boston College’s bogus guarantees and failure to protect the project, highlights the patchwork, expedient nature of the Belfast Agreement, which has left a legacy of ad hoc, unfocused, and at times contradictory attempts to deal with the past and the issue of historical offences.

Is this pursuit of the BC tapes in keeping with the spirit of early release, OTR amnesties, paramilitants in government, and the like? With the first prime minister in possibly 50 years with no apparent interest in Northern Ireland, is Downing St even aware of the damage this is causing?

After the undignified arrest of a decrepit and visibly infirm Ivor Bell, the PSNI have now zeroed in on Rea, another pensioner in ill health.

The irony is that the Red Hand Commando, the organisation he is accused of leading, is to date – and I’m willing to be corrected – the only paramilitary group which has completely disbanded.

The only remnant of its existence is an “Old Comrades” association. What sort of message does this send out at a time when the UVF and UDA are trying to persuade loyalists to engage with conflict transformation initiatives?

It is no exaggeration to say that the PSNI’s Belfast Project vendetta represents an attack on source confidentiality, a cornerstone of journalistic, academic, and historical research.

Indeed, if we are now operating on the principle that there is no such thing as academic or journalistic confidentiality, why not raid the offices of, say, the Sunday World? Wouldn’t their informants, plied with drink and cash-stuffed envelopes, be a more appropriate target, given that they would have information on current rather than historical offences?

In fact, why not pull in every author who has published a book on the Troubles and compel them to reveal their sources? As low down in the food chain as I am, even I have noticed a degree of reluctance amongst sources and potential interviewees who have cited the BC affair as the source of their concerns.

The latest counter-balancing exercise obscures the fact that an even-handed approach to investigating the crimes of the Troubles is a political chimera.

The unique relationship between the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, with dual membership and army-to-party transitions commonplace, means that any wide-ranging investigation into the “army” will at some point inevitably stumble across figures who are presently prominent or senior within the “party”, specifically Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

The ramifications of such an occurrence are easy to imagine. As such, political necessity will likely dictate that police attention continues to focus upon both loyalists and republican dissenters.

When the stakes potentially involve Sinn Fein’s continuing participation in power-sharing, “in the public interest” becomes an elastic and expansive term.