The dialogue with the past finds itself in an eerie quandary in Northern Ireland. There never was going to be a truth commission. Nevertheless, vital evidence has been unearthed that subverts the official narrative of Britain as the neutral, reluctant, peacemaker during 30 years of armed conflict, vindicating suspicions that the British state stewarded the loyalist paramilitaries, and ran death squads.
The evidence has been unearthed by two bodies charged with investigating the past: the Policing Ombudsman and the Historic Enquiries Team, set up by the police to investigate unresolved deaths among more than 3268 killings attributed to the armed conflict.
The latest case to emerge from the HET reveals shocking evidence of the security services’ presence at an ambush of three unarmed republicans in 1990. Sam Marshall was a republican ex-prisoner.
He and two other men, his brother-in-law Tony McCaughey and Colin Duffy - a republican whose face has become well-known in Northern Ireland after being charged and released many times, most recently this year, had just left a bail appointment at Lurgan’s RUC barracks. They were watched followed after a few minutes they met a storm of bullets from VZ58 automatic rifles.
Sam Marshall was killed yards from his home. Colin Duffy and Tony McCaughey ran for their lives. It is only because they lived – and because Duffy had memorised the registration number of a red Maestro car that had been trailing them – that Sam Marshall’s execution returned to haunt the British government.
In 1993, the then-Attorney General, Patrick Mayhew, denied the security services’ involvement. But a US extradition hearing in 1993 was told that there were security service officers in the Maestro. Suspicions of the security services’ involvement in the ambush have swirled ever since.
Finally, the HET told Marshall family there were six security services vehicles present at the ambush, containing nine undercover security services officers. The bullets came from weapons implicated in other murders. The guns were the same as weapons distributed to loyalist paramilitaries in 1988 after MI5 and a loyalist agent, Brian Nelson, orchestrated an arms deal in South Africa.
That arms deal re-invigorated the loyalist paramilitary groups at a crucial moment – a time when the armed adversaries were considering a peaceful settlement.
Collusion was confirmed by John Stevens’s 13-year inquiry. Yet his report has never been published, and the extent and purpose of collusion has never been aired in public. Sam Marshall’s assassination is that story, the crux of the entire conflict. But the HET report is based on a paper review. A senior police officer tells me that the security services’ presence was always known in elite circles.
There has been no new investigation of the officers involved, or of links to other assassinations. According to the family, the HET has ruled out from the actual killing the only people ever convicted: two loyalists arrested for hijacking a car involved in the ambush.
So, who did it? Is it linked to the many other deaths involving those weapons distributed among loyalists by MI5? The HET says it has no evidence that there was collusion, and no evidence that there wasn’t.
Sam’s brother John Marshall was at home that night:
‘I heard the shooting, I was 100 years away. I ran up - all I saw was a crowd, the police were already there and it was cordoned off. We have been lied to for years and years. The HET report stopped short of saying it was collusion. It’s awful.’
The truth seekers are being thwarted. The HET, though it has generated vital evidence, is not independent of the police. The once intrepid policing Ombudsman - a vital source of data on the dirty war in Northern Ireland – has been enfeebled and discredited.
This is tragic. “Peace processes only work on the basis of trust,” observes Jane Winter, director of British Irish Rights Watch. Britain’s engagement in counter-insurgency across the globe stretches the salience of its activities in Northern Ireland – it has, for example, used similar tactics in Iraq.
“It is really important,” adds Winter. “If you don’t deal with the past, if you don’t shine a light, it casts a shadow.”