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1 February 2016

Mystery of Nairac proves how truth is casualty of war

Murdered: Robert Nairac
Murdered: Robert Nairac

Here are just three Troubles-related questions raised last week. Did the security services know about the Shankill bomb? Did a secret deal in 1972 stymie an Army plan to annihilate the IRA? And where is the body of Robert Nairac?

I learned the hard way during more than 20 years writing about Northern Ireland that, because it is a small place in which terrible things have happened and contains plenty of people with something to hide, it is a rumour factory peopled with a disproportionate number of conspiracy theorists.

I know otherwise sensible unionists who believe that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and possibly the entire IRA army council were double agents. I don't.

Many nationalists believe that every member of the loyalist paramilitaries was a pawn on the British security chessboard who never killed anyone without having a weapon put in his hand and his target selected for him. I don't.

While I think there was considerable infiltration of sectarian terrorist gangs by various agencies and an awful lot of messy compromises, I think that, by and large, the security services were composed of honourable people trying to save lives and that most paramilitaries were perfectly capable of doing terrible things on their own.

Which doesn't mean that a few of the security forces didn't go to the bad. Or that more of them didn't sometimes get unwisely carried away by Boy's-Own-Adventure aspects of undercover work and source-handling.

Which takes us to last week's fresh appeal by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains for information about the whereabouts of what is left of Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards.

The chief investigator, Geoff Knupfer, said: "The remains of 12 of the 16 Disappeared have been restored to their families for Christian burial. Of the four remaining cases, Robert Nairac is the one on which we have least information."

(The others, lest we forget, are IRA victims Joe Lynskey and Columba McVeigh; and Seamus Ruddy, murdered by the INLA.)

It is ironic that the commission is particularly short of information about Nairac, who has had more written about him than about all the other Disappeared put together - even including Jean McConville.

He was only 28 - and had spent fewer than four years in Northern Ireland on undercover work - when he was shot in the head in County Louth by IRA men who had abducted him from a bar in South Armagh, tried to beat information out of him and then took him across the border to his death.

But into those few years this dashing, idealistic romantic, who believed his ability to mimic an Irish accent and sing rebel songs with the best of them kept him safe, packed more adventures than most people would dream of.

Posthumously, he would win the George Cross for "exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril".

His murderer, Liam Townson, said of him: "He never told us anything: he was a great soldier."

Nairac revelled in his dangerous job liaising in south Armagh between the Army, SAS and Special Branch - and, allegedly, running intelligence sources on the side.

Between those who think he saved innumerable lives and those who are convinced he was part of what the IRA calls "death squads", he has been a contentious figure since his death in 1977.

It was the appearance last November of his third full biography - Alister Kerr's The Murder of Robert Nairac GC - that is behind the commission's latest appeal.

This is a thoroughly researched and fascinating book, but though Kerr is convinced that Nairac was let down by incompetent colleagues who failed to save him and then instigated a politically expedient cover-up, there are many who think this clever, charming, complicated free spirit was a victim of his own arrogance.

What do I think? I don't know.

We have to accept that most people who did bad things in the maelstrom of the Troubles are unlikely to be queueing up to confess so there is always going to be a shortage of definitive evidence.

The least the rest of us can do is not to muddy the waters further by rushing to judgment.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards