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The ‘Unforgivable’?: Irish Republican Army (IRA) Informers and Dealing with Northern Ireland Conflict Legacy, 1998-2020

Conflict
Conflict Resolution
Political Violence
Peace
Eleanor Leah Williams
Queen's University Belfast
Thomas Leahy
Cardiff University
Eleanor Leah Williams
Queen's University Belfast

Abstract

Current literature suggests states and paramilitaries maintain hostility towards alleged and self-confessed paramilitary informers after conflicts conclude. We suggest post-conflict Northern Ireland suggests otherwise. Following the Northern Ireland peace process in 1998, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), its political wing Sinn Féin and the UK state have certainly not addressed all conflict legacy cases involving informers. Yet they have publicly or privately dealt with others. Northern Ireland shows former paramilitary groups do not view all informers as ‘folk devils’ beyond redemption. The IRA has apologised for killing some suspected informers. The UK state has also occasionally broken its ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy with specific informer cases. Both sides have adopted a more nuanced approach to dealing with informers’ legacy than previously thought for multiple reasons. These include political or communal pressure (or lack thereof), fear of reputational or political setbacks, and the perceived motives of suspected informers for publicising their grievances. Different perspectives on informing between alleged and self-confessed informers further enables Irish republicans and the UK state to deal with informer legacy on a case-by-case basis. Gaps in international and UK law surrounding the recruitment, use and conduct of informers also facilitates an unsystematic approach. Our research engages with themes of power, secrecy and revelation too. The UK state maintains ultimate knowledge about who informed. The state uses secrecy and revelation to protect its intelligence practises and its conflict narrative. However, state secrecy also unintentionally enables Irish republicans to continue challenging state narratives about informers and the conflict. Our article provides a detailed case study to advance our understanding of how democratic states and paramilitary groups approach conflict legacy cases involving informers. We cross-reference new interview material and memoirs by republicans, British security members and self-confessed informers with other sources. It addresses the complex consequences of political violence involving informers for non-state and state actors.