UK should follow Spain's lead in dirty war inquiry
Opinion: While researching a state terrorist campaign against the Basque terrorist group Eta in the 1980s, I found that the British state was a key reference for those who endorsed the Spanish “dirty war” strategy, but regretted the embarrassing incompetence of its protagonists.
“When the British do things like this,” I was told more often than you might care to imagine, “they always do them really well.” By “things like this”, my interviewees meant the illegal killing — that is, the murder — of those perceived to be a threat to the state. If that meant, on occasion, killing the “wrong” people, too bad.
By “really well”, they meant that the perpetrators were never, ever caught. The only commandment in these dark matters was not ethical, but brutally pragmatic: thou shalt not be found out.
I always thought it interesting that they referenced the deadly expertise of the British (or the French, or the Israeli) secret services, rather than the KGB or the Stasi, who had equally fearsome reputations for killing with exquisite discretion.
Of course, my interviewees claimed to abhor dictatorships and their methods. But they believed that democracies have the right, even the obligation, to break their own best laws for “Reasons of State”, when under threat from terrorism.
Even in pragmatic terms, this position is deeply flawed. There is much evidence that state terrorism usually stimulates support for insurgents, rather than stifling it.
But the “Reasons of State” argument is also an offence to minimal democratic ethics. Few have put this case better than Jesús Santos, a Spanish state prosecutor. He prosecuted a 1990s dirty war trial that saw a former minister, and a Guardia Civil general, convicted of the kidnapping and murder of two Eta members.
Such operations, Santos said, were morally “at the same level or worse” than those of Eta. They were worse, because Eta made no claims to the kind of democratic standards that the people in the dock were sworn to uphold.
Santos was no radical, he was simply a democrat: the eminent defendants, he said, were guilty of embracing the “obscene justifications of the terrorists’ own dialectic”.
No doubt the “Reasons of State” argument also informed the ethos of those British Special Branch and intelligence officers who handled the loyalist terrorists who murdered Pat Finucane. It must also be the creed of those politicians who either turned a blind eye to these state terrorists, or encouraged them.
As the Finucane family rightly insists, Sir Desmond de Silva’s inquiry has failed to probe this political dimension.
They are very probably right, therefore, to say that the inquiry is a “whitewash”. De Silva blandly asserts that “despite the different strands of involvement by elements of the state, I am satisfied that they were not linked to an over-arching state conspiracy to murder Patrick Finucane”. We should not be satisfied with his satisfaction.
Writing about the terrorism perpetrated by South Africa’s apartheid governments, Allister Sparks pointed out that such enterprises are governed by “the need not to know”.
In an ideal dirty war, the killer knows more details than his police handler, the handler more than his bosses, his bosses more than the minister responsible, and the minister more than the prime minister. Deniability is all.
In Spain, that principle broke down, partly because the lower echelons made such a mess of things, partly because the senior figures left a paper trail that reached all the way to the cabinet.
And partly because democratic citizens, journalists and members of the judiciary had the courage and conviction to pursue them relelentlessly.
It is essential, for the health of British (and Irish) democracy, as well as for the rights of the Finucanes and other affected families, that a full public investigation takes place into the political (and criminal) responsibility for Britain’s dirty war in Ireland — and any Irish State collusion therewith.
There are those who will ask why democratic governments should be subject to such scrutiny, when some senior former IRA leaders still refuse to take responsibility for numerous atrocities.
To which the answer is: we expect more of our democracies than we do of the IRA.
* Paddy Woodworth is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands (Yale, 2002).