Perpetrator – Amnesty and The Researcher of Violence

Perpetrator – Amnesty and The Researcher of Violence

This week, Rachel Kowalski (Wolfson College, Oxford) examines the place of academics in ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland.

As the issue of dealing with the legacy of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ floods the pages of my news feed, I find myself musing on the impact of perpetrator-amnesty for the researcher of violence. That the practice of exchanging ‘truth’ for ‘pardon’ is divisive, is evident by the reactions to its potential implementation for members of the security forces who were active during the ‘Troubles’.[i] For victim survivors and bereaved families, truth and justice can be viewed as fundamentally twinned and inseparable desires; antithetical to the mutual exclusivity which amnesty represents. And, for those actively involved in the conflict, the implementation of a full or partial amnesty could quite literally be life-changing. On a completely different, detached, and coldly analytical level, the implementation of perpetrator-amnesty impacts the researcher, and is an important consideration in the writing of conflict research regarding the four nations and beyond.

Perpetrator narratives, like all oral history, can be problematic sources of historical inquiry and need to be treated with caution. In the scenario where there has been no amnesty for those who historically perpetrated violence, there are increased constraints on the testimonies collectable by researchers. As 2014 memoir of former Southside Provisional Kieran Conway concedes ‘[his memoir] is the truth, it is not the whole truth and cannot be on pain of possible prosecution and imprisonment.’[ii] The reality of this claim being evident by Gerry Adam’s recent arrest over the content of the oral testimonies that were recorded for the Boston College ‘Belfast Project’ that were released by subpoena to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for their investigation into the long unresolved murder of Jean McConville (1972).[iii] Hence, in the scenario whereby amnesty has not been granted to perpetrators, it is increasingly difficult to acquire the personal testimony which would bring understanding into how and why an individual is driven to, and able to carry out heinous acts of violence.

Examining the voices of perpetrators of Troubles-related violence published across the decades is telling in this regard. Early paramilitary voices demonstrate confidence and almost a sense of invincibility when discussing the perpetration of violence.[iv] Yet, fail to confess anything really inciteful or potentially incriminating. Sean MacStiofain’s 1972 interview for Rosita Sweetman’s On Our Knees only references his personal involvement in attacks which were unsuccessful; mentioning how in 1969 his unit attempted to blow up a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station containing 12 members of the B-Special security force which failed because, as he recalls ‘the fuse didn’t go off. It would have been a terrific job!’.[v] All other references to violence are claimed on behalf of PIRA and thus avoid direct incrimination: ‘In June 1970 eleven members of the UVF were killed, and we also killed some in internment week.’[vi] Recent oral perpetrator testimony can be seen to be equally none-committal.[vii] Gareth Mulvenna’s Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash has copious quotes from interviews he has conducted with voices from Loyalist paramilitaries.[viii] None of which specifically detail violence they have perpetrated. They are, by contrast, extremely forthcoming in their descriptions of violence they allege to have been perpetrated by Republican groups.

The Boston College ‘Belfast Project’ interviews of IRA and UVF members which were planned only to be released upon the death of the interviewee had the potential to bridge the gap in scholarly research of troubles violence caused by the absence of perpetrator-amnesty. The interviews posthumously released to date have certainly been insightful. Quotations from the now late Brendan Hughes of the Provisional IRA presented in Ed Moloney’s Voices From The Grave book and televised documentary on the Troubles, for instance, reveal his perception of IRA internal politics and personal justification for armed struggle. The published transcript material, however, cannot be said to equate to what would have been available in the scenario of an amnesty. This is because Hughes admissions are limited to his being involved at a coordinating and faciliatory level only, with no direct references to his perpetrating violence. Hughes refers to his planning of bombings attacks, raising funds, acquiring weapons, gathering intelligence, being present at scenes of gun battles, and conducting non-violent interrogations of suspected informers. But, the few references to his involvement in violent activity are vague or couched in the language of collective IRA culpability.

Discussing his involvement in a spur of the moment ambush on an inadequately armed mobile patrol unit, Hughes states how they quickly ‘had an ambush set up … [The soldiers] were just wiped out’; in a way that ensures it is unclear whether he personally fired a weapon or was culpable of killing either of the two soldiers who died at the scene.[ix] And, on the rare occasion he mentions his personal use of a weapon, he presents himself as responding to violence, and never indicates that harm befell anyone as a result of his actions.[x] This could be due to some underlying inherent mistrust on behalf of the former paramilitary, or because of the limited scope of the interviewer’s intentions. In either respect, Hughes refrains from discussing the intricacies of his experience perpetrating violence that would enable a rich assessment of the mindset of the organisation and its participants.

The best examples of perpetrators discussing the dynamics of the Troubles-related violence they executed in detail, instead, are from those who have faced judicial proceedings and served prison sentences or have been legally cleared of the acts they discuss.[xi] The now, late former PIRA member Sean O’Callaghan’s account of the events surrounding and specific details of his assassination of Catholic RUC officer Peter Flanagan, for instance, provides insight into PIRA targeting practice and the wider meaning of the attack.[xii] The episode is discussed in rich detail in his memoir, and as a researcher I felt uninhibited discoursing about the episode at length with him in interview.[xiii] His accounts informed my article on ‘The Role of Sectarianism in the Provisional IRA Campaign’, enabling detailed analysis of the differing significance of religion in the perpetration of violence across the conflict.[xiv]

The limitations imposed on the collection of open testimonies from perpetrators of violence during the Troubles, are not present in other spheres of research where scholars have, by contrast, been relatively free to scrutinise the experience of the perpetrators because an amnesty was in place. The Lomé Accord (1999) was signed to bring the violence in Sierra Leone to a conclusion, and included amnesty for members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The introduction of amnesty was controversial and faced resistance. And, since its initial implementation has been somewhat reneged as key players responsible war crimes have faced trial and been incarcerated. Notwithstanding, Sierra Leonean amnesty for perpetrators has had a tremendous impact on the quality of the research which has been generated. Kieran Mitton’s Rebels in a Rotten State, lays testament to this, and is an invaluable source for the scholar of violence in this regard.[xv] The detailed testimonies of horrifying violence Mitton transcribes have revealed much about the dynamics of the violent rebel group, and the emotions which shaped the nature of the violence executed. For example, Mitton asserts ‘shame’ and ‘disgust’ as having been powerful emotions defining the conflict. And, his extensive interviews with perpetrators who had been forcibly recruited give acute insight into the journeys taken by individuals under extreme conditions that enabled them to move from civilian life to executing brutal and dehumanising violence.

Perpetrator amnesty is a complex contentious issue which has the capacity to bring, on the one hand, potential healing and reconciliation, and on the other, renewed pain suffering and a sense of injustice to those affected by the conflict. As the decades pass since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998), it is hard to imagine that perpetrator amnesty in Northern Ireland will ever become a reality. Nor is it clear that this would be in any measure helpful for post-conflict reconciliation and the sustainment of peace in Northern Ireland. As such, the scholar of conflict to which any of the four nations was party, must get somewhat creative in their acquisition of source material to interrogate in order to understand the violence perpetrated by groups including the UVF and IRA on anything like the level of scholars of post-conflict nations with active perpetrator amnesties.



[ii] K. Conway, Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, (Dublin, 2014)


[iv] W.H. Van Voris, Violence in Ulster: An Oral Documentary, (Massachusetts, 1975), pp.253

[v] R. Sweetman, On Our Knees: Ireland 1972, (London, 1972), p.155

[vi] Ibid., p.156-7

[vii] K. Conway, Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, (Dublin, 2014), pp.178-9;

[viii] G. Mulvenna, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash, (Liverpool, 2016), pp.112-113

[ix] E. Moloney; Voices From The Grave, (London, 2010), p.81

[x] Ibid., p.81

[xi] E. Collins, Killing Rage, (London, 1997); Sean O’Callaghan, The Informer, (London, 1998)

[xii] Sean O’Callaghan, The Informer, (London, 1998), pp.104-5

[xiii] Sean O’Callaghan, [Personal Communication], 27 February 2015

[xiv] R.C. Kowalski, ‘The role of sectarianism in the Provisional IRA campaign, 1969–1997’, Terrorism and Political Violence, (2016), DOI:10.1080/09546553.2016.1205979

[xv] K., Mitton, Rebels in a Rotten State, (London, 2015)

Rachel Kowalski is a Wolfson Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research concerns the nature of the violence perpetrated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ during the 1970’s. Rachel is interested in the study of violence more generally, and in 2016 she founded Violence Studies Oxford, the interdisciplinary research network for the study of violence based at The University of Oxford.

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