April 17, 2003

· News

Where did I put my list of countries known to give aid and comfort to terrorists? Sir John Stevens has submitted his report on collusion between security forces and loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland. As the BBC reports, he finds that members of the RUC (the police) and the British Army snuggled up with the UDA and arranged the murder of a number of Catholics. (To pre-empt tedious accusations, I should add that I am of course no friend of the IRA, either.) In particular, the assistance of agents of the British Crown allowed the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane to be shot to death in front of his wife and three children while he ate his Sunday dinner. (Slugger O'Toole will probably be covering this in much better detail, by the way.)

As has happened so often before, the self-image of British democracy and the rule of law runs aground on the shores of its first colony. I'm reminded of Lord Denning's immortal words about the Birmingham Six. When the Six applied for aid to sue the police for beating their confessions out of them, Denning dismissed their request on the grounds that if the accusation were true they would therefore be innocent, and the British public would face the “appalling vista” of a corrupt Justice system. The fact that the accusations were true, and the Six innocent, was neither here nor there. It was the appearance of the thing.

The Birmingham Six appeal (along with others) ran its course in the 1980s and when it finished there was a certain amount of self-satisfied “the System has worked” backpatting. I wonder if we'll see more of the same here. I also wonder what enthusiasts of the Anglosphere think about these developments. No system is perfect, etc, worst except for all the others, etc, I imagine. Which is fair enough. But these findings might encourage a bit of humility, too. They give the lie to the idea that the North can simply be understood simply as a civilized democratic state trying to keep two atavistic tribes from killing each other. High-flown rhetoric about British (and American) institutions begins to sound thin in the face of state-sponsored actions such as these.

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m also affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Read a brief overview of my work or my Curriculum Vitae.

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