Sitting in Belfast Crown Court in November 2022, Mr Justice O’Hara found former British soldier David Holden guilty of the manslaughter of Aiden McAnespie 34 years ago in Tyrone, Northern Ireland. This case exposed the secrets and lies faced by campaigners fighting for justice for the families of people who died during the Troubles which gripped Northern Ireland from the late 1960s up to 1998.
Holden is the first British veteran to be convicted of a historic offence in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, and he may be the last.
In my second novel Across the water, the principal character Vinny travels to Ireland to solve the mystery of what happened to his father. Paddy, Vinny’s dad, had returned to Ireland in 1974 and was witness to the Dublin bombing of that year, an event that changed his life.
‘Secrets and lies’ were at the centre of my journey to becoming a writer. My first attempt at writing was a biography of my dad. I discovered that he had been shamed in the late 1940s by being marched through the town at 18 in chains before being sent to do a year in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin for fighting with the police. A secret he kept for decades.
There is always a darker side in any story of Anglo-Irish relations, and this is true in my family. One of my older brothers joined the British Army despite coming from a Liverpool Irish family. He was posted to Derry and at 19 in November 1975, he used the rifle given to him by HM government to kill himself. As a 15 year old, I was told he died in an accident and it was another secret kept until I got the Coroner’s report many years later to finally find the truth.
In the community
But the truth was at least available to me, and the secrets and lies were told to spare my feelings. Campaigners argue that for many victims of the British Army the truth has been hidden for decades to protect the guilty, with result of further trauma for the families.
In the Holden case, Aidan McAnespie was crossing a border security checkpoint when he was shot in the back. He was unarmed and on his way to a Gaelic football club. In his judgement, the judge told the court Holden had given a “deliberately false account” of what happened.
Lies and justice
The list of campaigners and family members fighting for the truth about security service activities in Northern Ireland is a long one. They include cases like the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 where over the course of a few days nine civilians were shot and killed by members of the Parachute Regiment, and the infamous Derry Bloody Sunday in 1972 where 26 unarmed people were shot and 14 were killed by the same 1st Para that were involved in Ballymurphy.
It was not until 2021 that a coroner’s report found that those killed at Ballymurphy had been innocent. The Saville report of 2010 into Bloody Sunday overturned the earlier ‘Widgery report’ seen by many as a cover up. It says: “Despite the contrary evidence given by soldiers, we have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers.” It rejected the explanations given by soldiers to the inquiry, with a number said to have “knowingly put forward false accounts”.
Will secrets remain secret?
However, opportunities for families to receive justice through the courts will be severely curtailed if The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is passed. This bill would give immunity against prosecution for death in the past as long as ‘a truthful account’ of what happened was given.
It was opposed by all parties in the Northern Ireland assembly in 2021. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Alliance, SDLP and other opposition parties argued it represented a “corruption of justice”
The Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law is an independent non-partisan organisation that exists to promote the rule of law worldwide. In a highly critical report on this bill it has noted:
It prohibits civil claims connected to the Troubles, and inquests into deaths arising out of the Troubles. It prohibits most criminal enforcement, unless that enforcement is first authorised by the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). Shutting down inquests, civil cases and criminal enforcement is a denial of the ability of a person to have their rights vindicated in a court.
It undermines the centuries old injunction of Magna Carta that we will deny justice to no-one. It prohibits the Police Ombudsman from investigating complaints about the police connected with the Troubles. This undermines the duty to investigate deaths under the European Convention on Human Rights and undermines the Rule of Law.
Within the detail of the Bill there are provisions which have the effect of granting significant privileges to the state and state actors which are not available to non-state actors. This undermines the Rule of Law principle of equality before the law.
Worst of all, the voice of the victim is completely ignored.
All sides grieve
No one has a monopoly on pain and suffering. All sides of a conflict grieve. The grief can be deepened and multiplied by the suspicion that British security forces were involved in planning, supporting or organising as with the Ulster Volunteer Force responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. As noted by Justice Barron in his report, “it is also likely that members of the UDR and RUC either participated in, or were aware of those preparations.”
The men killed in the Loughinisland massacre in 1994 were: Adrian Rogan, 34, Malcolm Jenkinson, 53, Barney Green, 87, Daniel McCreanor 59, Patrick O’Hare, 35, and Eamon Byrne, 39. Five others were wounded in a sectarian attack for which no-one has been brought to justice. The men were shot as they watched the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup.
In this case judges rejected a bid by two retired senior policemen to quash the Police Ombudsman’s report, accepting that it had been appropriate for the watchdog to acknowledge that the evidence he had uncovered was in line with the views of the victims’ families that there were corrupt relationships between security force personnel and the paramilitary killers.
The Pat Finucane Centre, named to memorialise the human rights and defence lawyer shot dead in 1989 by members of the Ulster Defence Association in collusion with British Security forces highlights one of the dangers of this bill. It says “…wider society needs to be afforded factual truths about what took place so we can move forward into an agreed future without the past continuing to seep a toxic poison into the body politic. These requirements underpin the PFC’s work with families, with statutory bodies and with political parties on truth recovery.”
The Saville report makes it clear the British public were told lies about gunmen and bomb throwers after the Bloody Sunday killings, and there is continued secrecy surrounding the activities of the Force Research Unit and Special Air Service (SAS) in Ireland.
I and many people believe that the big lie in danger of being exposed through these cases is that the British army were in Ireland to keep the peace. I will leave the last word to the Pat Finucane Centre: “The PFC believes that bereaved families have a right to as much truth and justice as it may now be possible to reach. Elderly people who lost sons or daughters have a right to an independent truth recovery process that is compliant with international human rights standards. Younger people have the same right to discover the truth about how and why their parents and grandparents were killed during the conflict.”