Rewriting history in Northern Ireland
Belfast, 2013… past troubles but not forgotten. – Consortium News / Diego Sideburns
Boris Johnson’s government, while censoring files, wants to order “official history” of unrest, writes Anne Cadwallader
The JAWS fell across Ireland over the British government’s intention to commission an official history of “unrest”. The ones that may have fallen the fastest and the furthest belong to the Livingstone and Whitters families.
In April 1981, Elizabeth Livingstone’s younger sister Julie, 14, was shot dead on her way home to Lenadoon, west Belfast. A soldier from the Royal Wales Regiment fired a plastic bullet from inside a Buckwheat armored vehicle. Julie died a day later from head injuries.
Sixteen days earlier, 15-year-old Paul Whitters had been shot dead with a plastic bullet in his native Derry. He suffered from brain damage so catastrophic that his parents were forced to make the heartbreaking decision, 10 days after being shot, to turn off his life support at a Belfast hospital.
The two families discovered, decades after their mourning, that the British government had decided not to declassify official records on the circumstances of their deaths.
Julie Livingstone’s death case was closed in 2014 and remains until 2064. Both parents are already deceased, but by 2064 all of her 12 siblings will also be deceased.
In 2011, the official file on the assassination of Paul Whitters was closed until 2059. Since then, half has been opened but 93 pages remain closed.
“What possible implications for British national security may there be in the murder of a 15 year old child in Derry over 40 years ago?” asks his uncle, Tony Brown.
Secret because it’s secret
In an Alice in Wonderland-worthy development, it seems to the Whitters family that half of the roster is officially “secret” and the reason it is “secret” must also remain “secret.”
“The circular silliness of this argument left us speechless. It is about my son who was shot at near close range at the age of 15 and the cruel death of Julie Livingstone. They were just kids, ”says Helen Whitters.
She points out that neither of the families expect the names of those responsible to be disclosed, freeing London from any data protection, health and safety or human rights obligations. The only remaining possible cause, they believe, is the notion of national security.
As these families, and hundreds more, await the truth, London has announced its intention to commission historians to write an official account of the conflict. The Daily Telegraph revealed last week that the plans were drawn in response to fears that “IRA supporters are rewriting history.”
The narrative would focus on the role of the British government and military. One could be forgiven for remembering what Winston Churchill so memorably wrote that it would be “better” to leave the past to history “especially as I propose to write this history”.
COLIN Harvey, professor of human rights at Queens University Belfast, said this week:
“The British were the protagonists of the conflict… the participants. And it seems for the current UK government the truth hurts: they don’t like what is emerging about the role of the UK state.
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, was more succinct. Asked about the BBC’s “The View” show in Northern Ireland if he would accept an invitation, if asked to participate, he replied “I think I would say we get drunk”.
The Belfast Telegraph reports that among the historians considered is Lord Bew, a sponsor of the Henry Jackson Society and the inspiration for the Boston College Oral History Project.
Bew is also a former political adviser to former Ulster Unionist Party leader David, now Baron Trimble.
Meanwhile, files on Paul Whitters and Julie Livingstone are among dozens of others closed to researchers and historians. Some, most bizarrely, have been opened and then closed again, despite wide publicity – while others have been opened, closed and then reopened.
One example is CJ 4/1647 (January 1976-July 1977) containing documents detailing complaints of brutality against the British military and the then Northern Irish police, the RUC. It was closed to public access until 2064, restricting the right of those who alleged violence at the time to find out what was being said about them.
Another file is CJ 4/2841 (1976-1979) which details meetings and contacts between the British government and the largest loyalist paramilitary gang, the Ulster Defense Association. This was originally closed until 2052 for health and safety reasons and because it contains personal information.
Closed for 100 years
WHEN Margaret Urwin of the Justice for the Forgotten group made an access to information request in the hope of opening the case, her request was denied and the closing date was increased from 72 to 100 years .
These requests are reviewed by a so-called independent watchdog at the National Archives. Its members are appointed by the secretary of culture and include a former deputy director of MI5. They approve on average 99% of government censorship decisions.
It is worth clarifying that such files can, and often are, legally drafted under data protection rules where the publication of a name could put someone at risk – but these are at least files whose l existence is known.
In a different category are those whose very existence the British government has sought to conceal. Journalists such as Ian Cobain have written extensively that the Foreign Office has illegally accumulated over a million files of historical documents.
These files are kept in a secret archive at a high security government communications center in Buckinghamshire, north London, where they occupy miles of shelves.
Most of the newspapers are decades old – some were created in the 19th century – and document British foreign relations throughout two world wars, the Cold War, the withdrawal from the empire and entry into the common market.
They have been withheld from the public in violation of the Public Records Act which requires all government records to be made public once they are 20 years old, unless the ministry has received permission from the Lord Chancellor to keep them. Longer.
“What do they have to hide?
Meanwhile, families like the Whitters and Livingstones must wonder why information about their children’s deaths is withheld for decades.
“I felt we had done all we could for Julie after three investigations concluded that she was a completely innocent victim,” said Elizabeth Livingstone, her younger sister.
“But when I discovered the hidden file, it took away all the pain. Everyone who knew Julie will be dead when she is released. Your mind is raging. Why are they doing this? What do they have to hide?
The Whitters family, likewise, have no idea why 93 pages of their file will be closed until 2084. “I have written to 22 different Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland asking for information, “said Tony Brown, the uncle of the late boy, a retired senior social worker.
He said: “We know the name of the RUC man who shot Paul, the name of the inspector who gave the order to shoot and his superior since the investigation. It does not appear to have contaminated national security in the past 40 years.
“Nothing will ever hurt us as much as Paul’s death, but we are bewildered by how the murder of a child 40 years ago could encroach on national security. We can’t think of any other reason to hold him back.
The mother of the deceased boy, Helen, recounts how – on Christmas Eve after Paul died – a police officer came to her door and “handed us a bloody bag of clothes, smiled and left.” This, she said, was the entirety of the RUC’s engagement with the family over the years.
“In a society that upholds the democratic ideals of equality and government transparency, denying families information about the deaths of loved ones makes fun of such notions,” said Helen.
Harvard professor and author of three books on Northern Ireland, J Bowyer Bell, having studied British politics all his life, wrote:
“A lot of care, trouble, intimidation and influence has gone into keeping British secrets a secret…. Money, strength, loyalty, greed, disinformation, the law, patriotism, fear…. And if ultimately nothing works, then firm denial, whatever the evidence.
The leopard does not seem to have changed spots.
Consortiumnews.com, December 2. Anne Cadwallader has been a journalist in Ireland, North and South, for 40 years, working for the BBC, RTE, The Irish Press and Reuters.