A report on Britain’s ‘dirty war' in Northern Ireland rewrites history. This is welcome

Re-evaluating history gets a bad rap these days, but it is the key to avoid repeating the sins of the past

Northern Irish officials walk among the rubble in a street in Omagh in August 1998, shortly after a car bomb explosion that killed 28 and injured hundreds. AFP
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One of the silliest phrases to enter politics in the past few years is the accusation that someone is “rewriting history”.

Rewriting history is precisely the job description of a historian. Yet the phrase is often used in the UK nowadays to undermine or criticise the work of modern historians who overturn traditional views and prejudices, particularly of the British Empire.

A row about “rewriting history” arose a few years ago when a movie about the First World War featured Sikh soldiers fighting for the UK against Germany. There were many, many Sikh, Muslim and Hindu soldiers and people of colour from all over the world who fought in European wars on the British side. A more interesting question is why some British people are so insecure in their Britishness and our extraordinary history that they feel undermined rather than enriched by knowing how complicated the past really is.

That brings us to a current complication – a re-evaluation of very recent history, and the morally dubious things that happened within the UK itself in living memory.

Historically, the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland lasted from the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. But the re-evaluation of this living part of British history is contentious. Part of it emerged in a report released a few days ago on Operation Kenova.

Kenova is a long-term investigation into the police force in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the failure to investigate 18 murders in order to protect a high-level double agent known as “Stakeknife”. The agent, a paid informer, worked for the British army while simultaneously he was a notorious killer for the Provisional IRA, the Irish Republican Army.

Why are some British people so insecure in their Britishness that they feel undermined rather than enriched by knowing how complicated the past really is?

His name is Freddie Scappaticci. He died aged 77 last year. He was for a long time trusted within the IRA as a member of their Internal Security Unit, informally known as the “nutting squad” – killing supposed informants and others who, the organisation believed, were betraying them to the British.

The attraction for British forces and army intelligence engaged in a dirty war, in which more than 3,000 lives were lost, is obvious. For years, they had someone trusted by the IRA who was betraying the IRA’s secrets. But at what cost in terms of human misery and – frankly – basic decency and ethics?

The official Operation Kenova report into Stakeknife released in the past few days is clear: “It is unacceptable that 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement [GFA], many families of those who were killed during the Troubles are still seeking information from the United Kingdom and Irish governments.” The report points out that the current peace in Northern Ireland and the reinvigoration of power-sharing between communities and political parties have yet to bring closure for victims and their families.

Those of us who lived and worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are familiar with the peculiar, and at times horrific, moral wasteland from which sprang its own peculiar vocabulary. Paramilitary organisations were known by their initials – the IRA, the Provisional IRA (PIRA or “Provos”), the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and so on.

Paranoia about penetration of these organisations by informers was so rampant that they practised their own discipline. Some who offended against the organisation’s rules were “kneecapped” – shot in the legs in a variety of horrible ways. One paramilitary leader, with the most desperate attempt at humour, told me: “For a first offence we kneecap you. For a second offence … we kneecap your head.” Hence “the nutting squad”.

The Kenova report is, you might say, a very positive attempt to give closure to those who were wronged. It is a welcome rewriting of history. And it is a reminder that the horrors of the past need to be remembered so that they are not repeated.

I return to Northern Ireland often. I love this small piece of Earth, and I have many friends there. I also remember that while humans are capable of appalling atrocities, we are also capable of change and redemption. In these (thankfully) more peaceful and optimistic times, I have met many former prisoners and one-time terrorists, including some convicted of murder.

I would never attempt to excuse their crimes but having lived through the violent years, I have come to understand why otherwise good people are capable of appalling acts. Many – perhaps all – of those I have met are capable of change. Many are most definitely making a contribution to peace now and trying to atone for their at-times violent pasts.

In the words of the Kenova report: “This report is dedicated to the many victims we have come to know, those who survived and those whom through their loved ones we feel we know, each life prematurely lost during the Northern Ireland Troubles.”

The report rewrites history. Good. In doing so, it reminds us of truly despicable acts of terror and complicity. The key to avoid repeating the sins of the past is to constantly re-evaluate our history and remember what went wrong.

Published: March 12, 2024, 2:00 PM