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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Massacre At The Monbar
Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government – Jeremy Bentham
Anthony McIntyre • 25 September 2003

For republicans the 25th of September conjures up one image - Out Of The Maze, as the late Derek Dunne was to title his book chronicling the events of that successful Sunday in 1983. However, there is little need to be familiar with the work of Jean-François Lyotard to acknowledge that, as with all dates, their importance can be as much ethnocentric as eventful - a la 9/11. The significance attached to them in one region may be usurped elsewhere. In Paddy Woodworth's riveting book Dirty War Clean Hands, a short chapter entitled 'Massacre At The Monbar' details a horrific event which still resonates throughout the community from which those targeted on the day originated and where the 1983 escape from the H-Blocks is known only to republican aficionados amongst the Basques.
Two years to the day after 38 republican prisoners skilfully manoeuvred and manipulated their way out of the H-Blocks four members of ETA were shot dead in the Hotel Monabar which is situated in French Basque territory. Their assassins belonged to GAL, an offspring of the Spanish Socialist Party, which was specifically set up for the purpose of murdering, terrorising and in some cases disappearing those who either physically fought for or supported the objective of Basque independence. The names of the dead were Jose Mari Etxaniz, Inaxio Asteasuinzarra, Agustin Irazustabarrena and Xabin Extaide. A different date a different place, and they could as easily have been called John Quinn, Malcolm Nugent, Dwayne O 'Donnell, each an IRA volunteer, or Thomas Armstrong, an uninvolved civilian - all killed on a single evening at the same bar by the UVF, sections of which were then functioning as a British state equivalent of GAL.

There is absolutely no requirement to be sympathetic to ETA - the group's murder of former comrade Maria Dolores Gonzalez Catarain (Yoyes) in 1986 as she walked with her child simply because she refused to genuflect at its altar of armed struggle was enough to convince many that Stalinism was poisoning the Basque freedom drive - to object most strenuously to the manner in which the ruling Socialist Party in Spain sought to eradicate it and bounce the French state into aiding with the Spanish war effort. And while it has been argued by Jennifer S Holmes in the book Terrorism and Democratic Stability that Spanish society was not destabilised to the point experienced by its Peruvian and Uruguayan counterparts, precisely because the government did not resort to the wide-ranging repressive measures utilised by the South American twin terrorist states, this should not stand in the way of evaluating the Spanish apparatus which sponsored GAL as anything less than a demonstratively murderous entity. Although by Northern Irish standards, the Spanish state probably regards itself as having conducted its counter insurgency business in a semi-civilised fashion.

Governments everywhere are never what they tell you they are. As H.L. Mencken contended, almost invariably, the independent thinker, 'comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable.' Hence the need for structures of transparency and dissent in every society, for Hilary Wainwright's 'unsilenceable political force, a persistent day-to-day focal point in public debate.' As the loyalist writer Davy Adams eloquently argued on last Friday's Talkback, dissent is not an optional extra but a prerequisite to the health and vibrancy of any society or institution claiming to have democratic credentials. In its absence society becomes increasingly repressive and dysfunctional. Governments more than any other institution have been responsible for human rights violations - Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Dresden, Srebrenica, Sabra and Chatilla. Society has to be vigorously defended against government. One mechanism ostensibly set up to achieve this end in our own conflict zone has been the inquiry. But like most other things here its divisive properties have not gone unnoticed.

Depending on which perspective you subscribe to the North of Ireland today is comforted or infuriated in equal measure as a consequence of its being enveloped in an inquiry culture. Whether a soothing silk garment or an abrasive horse hair shirt, one thing seems certain - there is a limit to the number of inquiries that a society can have before the point is reached where sufficient numbers with no particular axe to grind begin to conclude that money not spent on present investigations as a result of being re-channelled to past cases will produce the effect of live investigations being treated only perfunctorily. Such pragmatism will kick in even deeper when Sinn Fein who presently lead the posse seeking state assassins, decide to support the police and respond to the imperative of the immediate. Those who continue to insist on more inquiries will then face the accusation that they are leading society into an introspective cul de sac where improperly conducted present investigations will give rise to fresh demands in later years for more investigations into matters that should have been dealt with today. The spiral is endless. Besides, how would the appetite of society for news be sated if current affairs programmes deal only with matters of history? Despite the assertion by Winston Churchill - paraphrased by John Ware - that the public inquiry is the worst form of getting to the truth except for all the others, Brian Feeney's observation that the history of inquiries in the North has proven them to be 'a waste of time and money' will probably gather pace.

People have a right to truth, the family of Pat Finucane every bit as much as the loved ones of Jean McConville. Both families have been lied to persistently over the years and they represent only a minute sample from the range of victims that this conflict has mass-produced. Yet we know that public or judicial inquiries are going to address relatively few matters and only those where it has become politically disastrous to evade any longer. The power to force some cases onto the agenda rather than the requirements of justice in any particular case in itself requires investigation. Why demand an inquiry into the murder of Pearse Jordan and not Jo Jo O'Connor? If there is no hierarchy of victims and no power structure to determine the pecking order, both cases should be treated equally. Inquiries in pursuit of truth that are not firmly grounded in a wider culture of truth will become damage limitation exercises or opportunities to engage in conflict - rather than reconciliation - by other means; a way of poking an opponent in the eye by saying 'it is now official - your political project brutally transgressed our political project and we now have the moral high ground in our battle against you.' How this advances anything other than sectional interests is difficult to envisage.

While useful it is not essential to the process of establishing truth that officialdom must come on board. More often than not truth emerges in spite of rather than because of powerful people in positions of authority. Civil society rather than the state can play a role and may inform the public consciousness regardless of what the state thinks. Was anyone convinced by Widgery's version of what happened on Bloody Sunday? The very term 'Widgery' has now become synonymous with cover up and whitewash.

Paddy Woodworth's excellent study of GAL murders has drawn attention to the role played by the media in uncovering atrocities by the Spanish state. And books like his in any society shall function as an indispensable powerful indictment, persuading many that the state has much to answer for and should have transparency imposed on its business. Hugh Orde, the present chief constable, may have a point other than self-serving in criticising the inquiries that enrich barristers before they achieve anything else. But it is hard to see what exactly it is. For Orde cannot have it both ways. It ill behoves him to depict the barristers as money grabbing vultures yet at the same time wage war on those who have the capacity to ensure that the objectives of inquiries are achieved by other means. Journalists in the North of Ireland do not always acquit themselves well, feeling that sustaining the myths of the peace process are more important than reporting on its inconsistencies. Anything designed to reinforce such quiescence is a retrograde step. If the truth is to emerge, writers and journalists must be free to pursue it. There are few enough willing to do it as it stands. Ridiculing the barristers while raiding the journalists - Hugh Orde's approach to 'closure' is to close down transparency and reinforce the culture of secrecy by introducing a sinister element into our already dubious policing milieu. Of cause for even further alarm is that the assault on transparency is being camouflaged by a discourse of modernisation and human rights.

Had that attitude prevailed in Spain the real power behind the murderers of Monbar, the Spanish state, might never have been unmasked. Cui bono?




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

26 September 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Over the Hills and Far Away
Anthony McIntyre


Glory O Glory O
Kathleen O Halloran


Beware the Trap Door
Eamon Sweeney


Massacre at the Monbar
Anthony McIntyre


The Night de Valera Replied to Churchill
Mick Hall


Junk Science? The Courts, the Media and the MMR Vaccine
John Harrington


Conscience or Complicity
Mary La Rosa


23 September 2003


Dissident Republicanism
Davy Carlin


Revenge or...
Pedram Moallemian


Chequers Nights
Eamon Sweeney


An Open Letter to Michael Moore: You Are Way Off Base About Wesley Clark
Terry Lodge


Remembering the other 9/11
Anthony McIntyre


The Letters Page has been updated.




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