Was I the only person to wonder whether Sinn Fein, MI5, the old RUC Special Branch and the British Army’s Force Research Unit might have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the talks that led to the recent so-called ‘Fresh Start’ deal managed not to reach agreement on how to tackle the North’s bloody past?
I say ‘a sigh of relief’ when perhaps a mutual pat on the back might be more appropriate. According to this explanation of what happened, it is at least conceivable that Sinn Fein made a demand – for unimpeded access to secret British papers – which both they and the Brits knew could be credibly rejected by Whitehall. And so the effort was abandoned, seemingly ad infinitum.
And so the show rumbles on with arguably the most destabilising post-conflict element unresolved but leaving behind a distinct suspicion that both the British and the Provos have so many ugly skeletons rattling away in various cupboards that both would rather that the past would just go away.
That the past has no intention of being so obliging was forcefully underlined this week when the son of executed IRA informer Frank Hegarty went public with a demand that Martin McGuinness, at the time of the Hegarty killing the IRA’s Northern Commander, be questioned about his part in his father’s 1986 killing.
Choosing his words with evident care, Ryan Hegarty told the BBC:
He (Martin McGuinness) was around when things were happening. He was a regular visitor to my grandmother’s house. I’m not implicating him but he was there.
Thebrokenelbow.com has posted in some depth about the Hegarty affair – accessible here – drawing both on my work as a reporter in the North and Liam Clarke’s informative biography of Martin McGuinness.
According to Clarke an extensive RUC investigation into the killing was on the point, in late 1993, of charging McGuinness with murder when a political intervention, motivated by the impending IRA ceasefire, stopped all this in its tracks.
Martin McGuinness’ reaction yesterday went beyond a stout denial, going as far as to suggest that British intelligence may have had a role in the affair:
There are questions to be answered in relation to Mr Hegarty’s death by those with detailed knowledge of this event, including British intelligence.
However, other accounts put McGuinness squarely in the frame and say not only that he lured Hegarty back to Derry from England where he was in hiding with his British handlers, with false assurances that he would be safe – hence the visits to Grandmother Hegarty’s home – but that he also had a motive.
That was a long simmering squabble between McGuinness and the then IRA Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna, fueled in part by rivalry over the IRA’s top job and McGuinness’ resentment at having to step down as Chief of Staff when he stood for Sinn Fein in the 1982 Assembly election.
Frank Hegarty had been expelled by the IRA on security grounds in the early 1980’s, after McGuinness lost the Chief of Staff role. But, coached by British military intelligence which recruited him after his dismissal, Hegarty returned to a key position, Northern Command Quartermaster with McGuinness’ support and blessing.
When Hegarty was revealed as a British spy – he betrayed an arms dump containing Libyan weaponry, thus also endangering the ongoing arms smuggling venture sponsored by Col. Gaddafi – McKenna raised various dark questions about why McGuinness had allowed Hegarty back into the IRA.
It is thus not difficult in these circumstances to see how McGuinness might have had a motive for wanting to see the Hegarty affair settled in a definitive way.
Ryan Hegarty’s decision to go public over Martin McGuinness’ alleged involvement in his father’s death, which despite his careful language is exactly what he is doing, demonstrates in a compelling fashion that the past will just not go away.
Too many corpses will simply refuse to rest in peace, and too many angry relatives have dark, suspicious, unanswered questions to allow that to happen.
And there is another certainty. Absent a credible truth-telling apparatus, these matters will be resolved in the courts, both civil and criminal, with dangerously unpredictable consequences.
From that perspective, a ‘Fresh Start’ is anything but.
Here is the piece on Ryan Hegarty carried by the BBC on Tuesday:
Frank Hegarty: Martin McGuinness ‘needs questioned’ over murder, son says
The son of an IRA informer killed almost 30 years ago has said Martin McGuinness should be questioned in connection with the murder.
Frank Hegarty was found shot in the back of the head in 1986.
His son, Ryan, said Mr McGuinness “needs to be questioned”.
However, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister said he “had absolutely no role in the death of Frank Hegarty”.
Mr Hegarty’s murder is to be investigated as part of a police inquiry into the activities of Stakeknife, who was said to have been the Army’s highest agent within the IRA.
Ryan Hegarty told the BBC: “In the eyes of the IRA, my father committed the ultimate crime.
Ryan Hegarty said his family had been left broken by the death of his father
“In my eyes, he saved the lives of human beings. But it cost him his own life.
“I have never denied that he passed on information to the security services. It’s well documented what my father did.
“My family has been left broken and in misery. It left utter devastation.”
Mr Hegarty said that he did not find out what happened to his father until he was a teenager.
“It was terrible living in Derry as Frank Hegarty’s son,” he said.
“He was known as a tout.
“Whatever my father did, he paid for it. My father was a hero, but to the republicans he’s a cheater.
“He (Martin McGuinness) was around when things were happening. He was a regular visitor to my grandmother’s house. I’m not implicating him but he was there.”
Mr McGuinness has always said that he advised Mr Hegarty’s family that he should not meet the IRA if he was an informer
In a statement, Mr McGuinness said: “At the time of these events, I was an elected Sinn Féin assembly member, having been elected to the assembly in 1982.
“I became involved with the family on being told that Frank Hegarty, a well-known Derry republican, had informed them that he had been abducted and taken to England by British intelligence agents.
“It was my duty as a public representative to assist the family. I did this to the best of my ability but there was little I could do.
“There are questions to be answered in relation to Mr Hegarty’s death by those with detailed knowledge of this event, including British intelligence.”