By Jack Holland
The propaganda war to discredit the Police Service of Northern Ireland is now well under way.
The saying about truth and war is well known and often quoted. But in a propaganda war truth never even gets near enough to the battlefield to become a casualty.
It is going on across several fronts. Sinn Fein is using the controversy over the police handling of the Omagh bomb investigation as a wedge to drive between the Nationalist community and PSNI. Though it was the RUC, PSNI’s predecessor, which was responsible for conducting the investigation, the point is being made that the Special Branch is still up to its old tricks, refusing to disclose all it knows, protecting informers, and colluding, except now it is doing it under a new label.
Meanwhile, the first complaints from Sinn Fein activists about “harassment” from PSNI are being given a big play. After a demonstration against two watchtowers in South Armagh led to a vicious riot, a busload of Sinn Fein activists on their way back to Belfast was stopped by police and searched. According to the Sinn Fein members, the search was conducted in an “intimidating manner.”
Cara Grogan, 21, was quoted as saying she was “frightened” by the PSNI officers who held up the bus for over an hour, forcing, she claims, women to urinate in a nearby field while under the eye of the police.
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Damien Lawlor, 24, told the Irish News: “This is the new police force which is supposed to be reformed or changed in some way; their reaction clearly shows they haven’t.”
In the preceding riot, 21 officers were injured, several of them quite seriously, and three British soldiers, one of whom received severe burns thanks to a fire-bomb attack on Crossmaglen army base when protesters filled a large oil-drum with petrol and rolled it against the gate. Stones, petrol bombs, and sticks were employed. At the two watchtowers, the Sinn Fein demonstrators tried to pull them down, using wire cutters to get through the fence.
Yet Sinn Fein continue to portray PSNI’s response as if it was reacting to a peaceful protest, instead of one using at times dangerous violence. Sinn Fein’s response to the controversy over the Omagh bomb investigation has been an exercise in hypocrisy more suitable to the world of George Orwell’s “1984” than to the politics of ordinary democracies. Pat Doherty, the party’s vice president, has accused the RUC of complicity in the bombing because it failed to act on information about a putative CIRA gun and bomb attack on the Omagh RUC station, which an informer said was due to take place on Aug. 15. There was no gun and bomb attack, of course, so the information was wildly inaccurate. Instead, the Real IRA devastated the center of Omagh killing 29 people — most of them women and children. Still, ignoring these differences, Doherty demanded the police open their files on the atrocity.
Sinn Fein’s vice president seems to forget that a few years ago his party’s president, Gerry Adams, refused to call on people to help the police with their investigation into the mass murder, the worst in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict. Adams wrote to Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son, James, was one of the victims, and who had contacted Adams asking for his help in tracking down the killers: “You ask that I call on citizens to give information if they have it about the Omagh atrocity. There are historical, as well as contemporary reasons, for not doing this. Not the least of which is our continuing concern at the criminal justice system . . . and the existence and role of the RUC.”
More recently, Mr. Barker wrote: “It was the most I could do to contain my anger at seeing Adams and [Martin] McGuinness present at my son’s funeral in Donegal and to hear them publicly condemning the outrage which took place in Omagh on Aug. 15, 1998. Since that time, on numerous occasions, Adams and McGuinness have refused to encourage their supporters to give evidence [even to the gardai] about those responsible for one of the worst terrorist acts to take place on our shores. That is the worst kind of hypocrisy from any politician, even a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Doherty is a case in point. He asks the police to make available the information they have on RIRA and its attack. In all fairness, if the police are to divulge all they know, then why not the Provisional IRA? It should not be forgotten that until October 1997, Doherty, Adams, and McGuinness were in the same organization as the people who ordered and carried out the Omagh bombing. For many years they sat in the same councils as Mickey McKevitt, Val Johnston, and other RIRA leaders. They probably know a lot more about the membership and modus operandi of the RIRA than does the PSNI.
Of course, in reality Sinn Fein is not so much interested in bringing to justice those who were responsible for the Omagh massacre than it is in using it to discredit the new police force. In trying to do so, it also is taking aim at its political rivals the Social Democratic and Labor Party, who have gone on the new policing board.
Also backing PSNI are the Catholic Church, the Irish government and, most recently, the U.S. administration. The Bush administration last week certified renewed contacts between federal law-enforcement agencies and the Northern Irish police, allowing training programs and exchanges to be resumed. Rep. Ben Gilman and Chris Smith, long-time critics of the RUC, have enthusiastically endorsed the PSNI.
Gilman has already shown signs of growing impatience with Sinn Fein and the IRA. After Adams made threatening remarks about how Catholics who dared to join PSNI would be treated the same as RUC men, “no more and no less” (that is, they would be murdered, as were Catholic RUC members), Gilman responded by warning that anyone attacking or encouraging attacks on the recruits for the new force might end up finding it hard to get a visa to come to the U.S.
Despite the endorsements for PSNI, Sinn Fein clearly believes it has not yet lost the argument on policing. That is because, essentially, the argument is more about politics than policing. The relatives of the Omagh victims might find that their quest for justice has been hijacked by others with a rather different agenda.