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Editorial The British state is sitting on terrible secrets

TONY BLAIR famously regrets his government’s decision to introduce the Freedom of Information Act. 

The war criminal revered as “the Master” by Tory axemen David Cameron and George Osborne stands by decisions to bomb Yugoslavia into the stone age, help start a war in Afghanistan that remains unfinished 18 years later or join the unprovoked invasion of Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and gave birth to the Islamic State terror group.

Nor does having saddled the NHS with unaffordable PFI contracts or breaking his promise to renationalise the railways trouble the ex-PM’s conscience, but allowing public access to information about government decisions does.

Blair has complained that the Act prevents ministers from having “confidential” discussions with their advisers.

It’s hard to see why, since decisions such as today’s by the Information Commissioner’s Office show the British state is still able to withhold information that the public might expect a right to access.

Despite public inquiries no minister has been hauled through the courts for the illegal decision to start a war with Iraq. While the twists and turns of British policy did expose former foreign secretary Jack Straw to legal action over his alleged role in the abduction and torture of a Libyan rebel — a favour to Colonel Muammar Gadaffi he must have regretted when the Cameron government joined France and the US in torching Libya and putting the Islamist insurgents in charge — the government succeeded in its application to have the case heard in secret, and the extent of Britain’s complicity in the US’s extraordinary rendition and torture programme remains murky.

This is troubling as the state clearly keeps some dark secrets. The horrific revelations emerging daily from the Ballymurphy inquest are downplayed by most British media with the exception of the Morning Star (the coverage has unsurprisingly been better in Ireland), while the idea that soldiers should be held to account for killing innocent people is controversial enough that one Tory MP is now “on strike” from his party in protest. 

Soldiers are of course expected to obey orders — though this has not been considered a valid defence against war crimes charges since the Nuremberg trials. 

The rose-tinted view expressed by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley in March — that in contrast to killings by paramilitary organisations, police and soldiers who killed people during the Troubles were “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way” — is probably widely shared by a public constantly presented with a heroic image of our armed forces, subjected to a propaganda barrage each year around Remembrance Sunday that exploits respect for those who died fighting for our country to drum up support for present and future wars and exposed to “Be the Best” feelgood advertising about what being a soldier entails.

The Ballymurphy accounts of paratroopers organising sweepstakes to reward the soldier who got the most “kills” and using the shattered skull of one of their innocent victims as an ashtray tell a different story, of a thuggish imperial power that saw the lives of Irish civilians as worthless.

The decision not to publish the 1973 Morton report leaves us unable to determine the extent to which the British state was implicated in killings by loyalist paramilitaries, though plenty of evidence exists to suggest the links between these paramilitaries and the state were close. On the strength of what we know already it seems reasonable to suspect the worst.

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