Intelligence wars are by definition callous, brutal affairs full of deception, betrayal, lies and death. And often the deaths suffered are those of innocent non-combatants.
But even so, many people, myself included, will find it hard to believe that the RUC Special Branch could have conspired with their agent in the Ardoyne IRA, a character apparently code-named ‘AA’, to allow the October 1993, Shankill Road fishmonger’s bombing to go ahead, as has been alleged by The Irish News in the last week or so.
Even though it is possible to construct a perfectly coherent justification in intelligence, political and even humanitarian terms to green light the operation, it is still difficult to get one’s head around the accusation/assertion that the police were complicit in the deaths of children and innocent civilians.
The bombing may well have rescued the peace process from failure and in the long term saved many more lives than were lost on that terrible afternoon, but nonetheless……..
Would your skepticism be tempered, however, by the knowledge that this is not the first time that the RUC Special Branch has been accused of allowing innocents to perish in the interests of the intelligence war it was waging against the IRA? Not just innocents, but their own colleagues in the RUC.
Back in October 1982, on the 27th day of that month to be precise, three ordinary members of the RUC in the Craigavon area of Co. Armagh were given permission by their superiors to drive their patrol car along a stretch of road that previously the Special Branch had declared too dangerous for the security forces.
The men’s patrol car drove into a trap. A massive landmine was detonated under their vehicle which was tossed into the air like a cardboard box, instantly killing the occupants and creating a massive crater in the road.
The landmine had been placed there by the IRA in North Armagh and the carnage that day was the trigger for a series of reprisal-like killings by specially trained police squads whose actions came to be known as ‘Shoot To Kill’.
Amid Nationalist anger and Irish government protests, Manchester police chief, John Stalker was dispatched to investigate the shooting deaths of three IRA members, two INLA activists and a civilian teenager in the weeks following the landmine explosion. He was removed from the probe when he was on the verge of obtaining a final, vital piece of evidence.
Eight years later Yorkshire TV told the startling story of Stalker and the ‘Shoot To Kill’ investigation in a 3 hour drama-documentary that surely ranks as one of the best ever pieces of reportage about the Troubles and a tribute to the sort of long form British television journalism that, alas, is no more.
I am sure there are many readers of this blog who are either too young to know anything about the Stalker inquiry or whose memories of it have faded with age. I won’t spoil the story for you by going into any detail and I couldn’t tell it any better than Yorkshire did anyway. It is long, three hours plus a discussion afterwards, but well worth the effort.
(Incidentally there was only one legal comeback as a result of the programme. The then RUC Chief Constable, Sir John ‘Jack’ Hermon sued Yorkshire for libel. Not for alleging he had been part of a cover up of Special Branch murder but because one scene showed him swigging a extra large glass of whiskey!)