After investigating four controversial killings in Northern Ireland, retired Canadian judge Peter Cory concluded that agents of the security forces were allowed to set up murders, which the army (especially its Force Research Unit), MI5 and special branch were aware of, encouraged and assisted with. As he made his recommendations for full public inquiries there were press reports that the Ministry of Defence was concerned that "further light would be shed on the undercover operations of the FRU after embarrassing disclosures by an ex-soldier under the pseudonym Martin Ingram" (Guardian, 2/4/04).
Ingram, an ex-FRU intelligence officer, has, in conjunction with journalist Greg Harkin, produced a book Stakeknife Britain's secret agents in Ireland, which goes into some of the details that Cory only hinted at. It shows that the role of the security forces went much further than just providing 'assistance'. Bodies such as the FRU controlled, directed and initiated the activities of their agents within the loyalist and republican paramilitary gangs. Sometimes this was unproductive. On a number of occasions army agents in the IRA tortured and murdered agents being run by the RUC, but that doesn't mean that the security services were maverick forces, out of control. On the contrary, they were, and remain, integral to the work of the capitalist state.
One of the distinctive things about the FRU, which ran from 1980-1992 until its name was changed to the Joint Services Group after the first revelations of the activities of its agent Brian Nelson, was that, unlike other intelligence operations run by the army, it did not have an RUC officer running operations. So, when Ingram says of Nelson's activity in the three-year period from Christmas 1986 that he was not only "allowed to kill but actively encouraged to kill" (p.181) this can only be described as government policy. Rather than focus on the particular personality of Nelson it is essential to remember that he was carrying out army orders, just as much as when he served for more than four years in the Royal Highland Regiment. So the arms shipments for loyalists from South Africa, the payments for weapons to be imported into Northern Ireland, the torture, the bombings and shootings carried out with the participation of Nelson, were the policy of the British state.
Ingram says of the late 1980s that, "The thinking of the FRU at that time was not dissimilar to that of recent regimes in Colombia, where right-wing paramilitary death squads were armed and run by the State" (p.190). When he says that "The FRU was using loyalist paramilitaries as an extension of the British Army" (p.191) Ingram is describing a military policy that characterises the whole of the last 35 years.
The Stakeknife book tries to clear politicians or the higher echelons of the army of any role in this activity. But the book provides plenty of evidence to contradict this idea. For example, finance for arms was organised through bank robberies, extortion, etc. "with the tacit understanding and compliance of the FRU". Subsequently imported weapons "were tracked from source to distribution by the FRU and MI5 by electronic means" (p.192). This meant that MI5 knew what was going on, and one of their responsibilities was to keep politicians aware of every development in the situation. An MI5 liaison officer shared an office with the FRU operations officer, so there was clearly some sort of relationship between the secret services. MI5 reported to politicians. "It is certain that ministers were also kept informed by the security services of the ongoing case files on agents, although great care would have been taken to ensure that there was no paper trail, or indeed smoking gun, in the hands of the minister" (p210).
When the Stevens inquiry opened the Army denied it had any agents in Northern Ireland. It was not long before a network of more than a hundred agents was revealed, which had existed for more than 20 years. Later the Army claimed that Nelson's activity had saved 217 lives, on investigation there was evidence for only two - one being Gerry Adams. Secret services obviously want to remain as secret as possible, and it is understandable that they want to keep a lid on revelations about their activities. Ingram obviously appreciates this. He thinks that, "there is a place and a role in all decent democratic societies for an intelligence agency that is working towards acceptable goals" (p33). The 'acceptable' work of the FRU was the infiltration and monitoring of the IRA that led to the sabotage and ambush of republican operations. Ingram's reservations focus on "state-sponsored terrorism" (p94) by Britain in Northern Ireland. To this end he thinks, "there should have been safeguards in place, a series of checks and balances ... our legislators let everyone down by allowing the FRU to operate ... with no written terms of reference or guidelines" (p.210).
This is the democratic myth that capitalism never tires of telling. It says that each revelation, every public inquiry, the investigations of a 'free press', these all show that truth will out, that 'excesses' can be curbed, that justice will be done. Talks are under way to establish a 'truth and reconciliation' commission, as happened in South Africa. In Tony Blair's words, people must be allowed to express their "grief, pain and anger" as part of an organised process. However, the conflicts that cause such feelings will continue, as will the state's role in terrorism and repression, for as long as capitalism continues.