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Plan to close off Troubles legacy exposes role of British state

Spare a thought for Patricia McVeigh, now 70, whose father was killed by an undercover army unit

For 49 years Patricia McVeigh has fought to clear her father’s name after he was killed by a British army undercover unit, which claimed he had shot at them.

Patrick McVeigh (44) had no links to the IRA and forensics showed he was unarmed. In 2006 two detectives seconded from England to investigate legacy cases invited Patricia to ask them any questions about her father's death.

"These two fellas promised to try to get me answers within about twelve weeks," she says. Those answers finally began to arrive a week ago in a lever-arch file from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

The evidence suggest the soldiers occasionally acted as agent provocateurs by creating the impression that loyalists were responsible for violent actions on the streets of Belfast, or elsewhere.


On his way home from the pub, her father stopped to chat to three friends manning a barricade erected to protect the neighbourhood from loyalist attacks, when they came under fire.

The others were wounded but survived, Patrick McVeigh died.

Last year Patricia finally reconciled herself to never seeing the soldiers in court. As in so many legacy cases, time and tide had washed away any surviving forensics.

One of the soldiers had died, the other was unreachable, a third had emigrated to Australia. Instead, she invested all her hopes of getting redress with an apology in the civil courts by suing the ministry of defence.

The PSNI lever-arch file was the first of three that was needed to prepare for that case to be taken. It had taken her solicitor multiple court appearances to get them.

Just five days after she got it, she learned that the government of the United Kingdom plans to abolish all avenues of legal redress – not just criminal but also civil – for crimes committed during the Northern Ireland conflict.

“And this is a government that prides itself on being the party of law and order?” she asks rhetorically.

A constitutional battle now looms over the latest in the UK's proposals for dealing with the vexed legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict

Denying citizens their inalienable rights to seek redress for an injustice at either an inquest or in the civil courts "can't simply be waived away", says her solicitor Eoin Murphy. "This is off the charts and almost certainly non-compliant with contemporary human rights jurisprudence," says the former Northern DPP Barra McGrory QC. "A terrible, terrible betrayal of the victims," notes former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

A constitutional battle now looms over the latest in the UK's proposals for dealing with the vexed legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict. If the plan unveiled by Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis becomes law parliamentary sovereignty will run headlong into the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights.

It is no secret that many Conservative MPs would happily dispose of both. “Are we looking at the Trumpian remaking of the UK?” asks one British official.

Barely a month has passed since the arrival of those two detectives back in 2006 where Patricia McVeigh has not chased the police for information, or exchanged emails with her solicitor.

There is not a secretary of state, a prime minister, a chief constable or taoiseach whose help she has not sought in impassioned letters, she says.

“It’s been so important for me and my family to clear Dad’s name,” she explains. “He had nothing to do with the IRA. He was a good and kind person who cannot RIP [rest in peace] until the truth is public. You know how the Irish are superstitious – truth and honesty along with loyalty is paramount to us.”

Although the proposed statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for state and non-state perpetrators has also been widely criticised, several lawyers engaged in legacy cases are privately more sanguine.

As the case of Patrick McVeigh illustrates, the prospects of successful prosecutions are now “vanishingly small” as Lewis has said.

Fresh impetus to her case came in November 2013 from my investigation for BBC Panorama into the unit that killed her father, called the Military Reaction Force (MRF).

Three ex-MRF soldiers admitted on camera that they shot on sight people they suspected of being in the IRA, whether or not they were armed.

The Director of Public Prosecutions directed the PSNI to "investigate the activities" of the MRF. The task went to the Serious Crimes Review Team (SCRT) who appear to have limited their "investigation" to merely a review of any usable admissions in the programme. Since the MRF interviewees had been careful not to incriminate themselves, the PSNI looked no further.

In January 2015, the case was handed over to the newly established Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) – again, with no evident enthusiasm. I am told the SCRT’s instruction to their LIB colleagues was, “have a look at this MRF shit, would you?”

For their part, the LIB promised Patricia that “no stone would be left unturned”, that the “truth” would be “pursued no matter where it takes us” and that they were in this “for the long haul”. Yet the next five years would be marked by a regular churn of LIB detectives in charge of the case, each one having to familiarise themselves anew – and with varying degrees of appetite.

The LIB was assisted by a handful of ex-MRF soldiers who disapproved of the unit’s cowboy elements, regarding some of them as bordering upon the psychotic.

Wednesday's announcement suggests that decision on whether to prosecute is now academic

Although the third suspect now lives in Australia, Patricia McVeigh had hoped he would be extradited. “I’m looking forward to interviewing him across a table,” an LIB detective told her in 2017. That moment also came and went. While making arrangements for the interview, the LIB were told he had a stroke.

Finally, this year, the LIB sent the fruits of 15 years of police work to the DPP. “It’s a large and complex case,” Patricia’s solicitor was warned. “This will take time.”

Wednesday’s announcement suggests that decision on whether to prosecute is now academic.

What has united all political parties in their condemnation of the British proposals is the failure to replace prosecution with a judicial mechanism that will still deliver accountability as required by article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Inquests can achieve this, as can redress in the civil courts.

The British government appears to believe an “Information Recovery Body” will compensate for the loss of judicial accountability. But McGrory says it will not do so.

“All this new body offers is access to information to find out what happened,” he says. “There’s nothing about this body reaching a finding about wrongdoing. Its language is vague and imprecise.”

Some 1,000 cases are now before the civil courts precisely because relatives of the dead and injured have no prospect of getting redress through the criminal process. The government wants to close off that last remaining avenue because of what it describes as the “intense focus” on “divisive legal processes” which are driving “wedges between communities”.

It is true that those 1,000 case are almost exclusively directed at one side of the conflict – the British state and the many hundreds of agents the state recruited to penetrate loyalist and republican groups.

Case by case, an ever increasing number of agents are being revealed as having been involved in ever more of the conflict’s 3,500 killings: suspected of having known about killings in advance, or their presence compromising Criminal Investigation Department investigations into them. The salutary fact is that even 23 years on from the end of the conflict, the full hand of the State is not yet known

Now, the British government appears to be trying to ensure that it never will be by depriving the only avenue left to the victims whose needs the government otherwise insists must come first.