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Will Britain ever hold its own ‘state terrorists’ to account? Don’t hold your breath

It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the Northern conflict that the British state used illegal violence, both against republican terrorists and uninvolved civilians

The Kenova report sheds welcome and forensic light, long overdue, on how British security forces repeatedly permitted, and probably directed, illegal killings by their agents in Northern Ireland.

Its most damning finding is that “murders committed by [British] agents” include “cases in which it was arguable that they were acting on behalf of the state”.

It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the Northern Irish conflict that the British state used illegal violence, both against republican terrorists and uninvolved civilians. But it still comes as a shock to see it so baldly demonstrated, in such detail, in an official police report.

However, the report falls short in one crucial respect; it recommends no legal accountability for those officers and politicians (some of whom surely knew what was happening) who permitted murder on behalf of the British state. It only calls for “acknowledgment” and “apologies” by the British government. But why should those who, by act or omission, are guilty of state terrorism enjoy immunity?


Indeed, only last month, the Belfast High Court ruled that a central provision of the controversial Legacy Act, which provides conditional immunity for Troubles offences, does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. Was the rush to pass this act, despite many well-founded objections, motivated by the fear that the Kenova report was going to reveal new hard evidence of British state terrorism?

For sure, “terrorism” is a slippery term, and it is trickier still when prefaced by “state”. Brendan Behan’s acerbic comment springs to mind: “the man with the small bomb is a terrorist; the man with the big bomb is a statesman”.

“Terrorism” is frequently used with purely political intent, to demonise armed groups we disagree with, while those we agree with are lauded as “freedom fighters”.

Dictatorships often describe democratically motivated armed groups as “terrorists”. Democrats themselves are sometimes ambiguous about this label. It’s hard to imagine any EU politician describing the French Résistance as terrorists. But the term is still applied by many Spanish politicians to the killings of Spanish representatives of General Franco’s dictatorship by the Basque group ETA.

Yet the Franco regime, as Paul Preston’s monumental study, The Spanish Holocaust, convincingly demonstrates, was born in mass murder and rape, and survived 40 years by terrorising the majority of Spaniards. Does armed resistance, misguided or not, to such a regime really merit the “terrorist” label?

The subsequent evolution of ETA, however, and the Spanish democratic state’s response to it, help clarify this issue. They provide object lessons, by differentiating both other forms of violence from terrorism, and the state’s “legitimate monopoly of violence” from state terrorism. Moreover, the energetic reaction of key sections of the Spanish media, judiciary, politicians and public to the use of terrorism by their own state contrasts very favourably with the culpable indifference shown by most of their British counterparts to violent abuses of state power in Northern Ireland.

Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain quite rapidly, if painfully and imperfectly, transitioned to democracy. The classic democratic freedoms, of assembly, speech and voting rights, were firmly established by 1978.

Following a general amnesty in 1977, one section of ETA embraced democratic politics. But another section escalated its violence. It killed many more people, and more indiscriminately, than it had done under the dictatorship, pursuing an unconditional demand for full independence for the Basque Country.

It seems reasonable and accurate to label the post-dictatorship ETA as “terrorist”, since it was, like the Provisional IRA, terrorising civilians and targeting security forces in support of a political agenda that could now be advanced freely by other means.

Meanwhile, in 1982, Spain elected its first centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) government in 50 years. The PSOE feared, not unreasonably, that ETA’s continuing assaults would provoke a military coup. Key government figures responded by setting up death squads, bizarrely called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL). The GAL used both state forces and state-funded mercenaries to kill 27 people, and injure as many again, including very young children, almost all in the French Basque Country, ETA’s long-time refuge.

The GAL campaign mollified Spain’s restless army officers, but at a terrible price, for the victims of course, but also for Spanish democracy. It gave ETA a powerful propaganda tool to persuade another generation of Basques that Spanish democracy was just a facade for a violent dictatorship, and legitimise its “armed struggle” against it.

Nevertheless, some Spanish democratic forces responded remarkably robustly to the GAL’s state terrorism. Courageous media investigations were rapidly followed by court hearings. In the 1990s, even while ETA’s terrorist attacks continued unabated, two former Spanish government ministers, a former director of state security and, perhaps most remarkably, a charismatic Guardia Civil general were jailed for GAL crimes.

True, some of those most zealous to expose the GAL scandal had base political and even personal motives. The polarisation and fake news that bedevil today’s Spanish politics, so well analysed by Guy Hedgecoe on these pages recently, was born in these years. And senior GAL members were rapidly released, while ETA members served very long sentences.

But the statement made by Jesús Santos, who prosecuted the Guardia Civil general, still rings true: the GAL “were morally at the same level or worse” than ETA, giving additional arguments to “the obscene justifications of the terrorists’ own dialectic”.

Will we ever hear a similarly compelling case made in a British court against British state terrorists or their political masters? Will the British media, or the British public, ever clamour for them to be held to account? Don’t hold your breath.

Paddy Woodworth is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy (Yale, 2003).