A pernicious narrative seeking to blame the State for almost every atrocity in the North's Troubles must be challenged, the British Government has said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers claimed a skewed view of history was being peddled, which had seen unsubstantiated allegations treated as fact and a disproportionate focus placed on the actions of police and British soldiers.
In a keynote speech on legacy issues in Belfast, Ms Villiers said there had undoubtedly been misconduct by some rogue security force members during the conflict, but she described claims it was “rife or endemic” as a “deliberate distortion”.
The Conservative MP stressed that paramilitaries were responsible for 90% of the deaths in the Troubles, with the State involved in 10%.
In her address at Ulster University, Ms Villiers paid tribute to the “remarkable dedication, professionalism and courage” of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Armed Forces, noting that 1,000 lost their lives.
“Around 7,000 awards for bravery were made and, quite simply without the dedication of the security forces to keeping people here safe, the circumstances that enabled the peace process to take root would never have happened,” she said.
“Yet today we face a pernicious counter narrative.
“It is a version of the Troubles that seeks to displace responsibility from the people who perpetrated acts of terrorism and place the State at the heart of nearly every atrocity and murder that took place – be it through allegations of collusion, misuse of agents and informers or other forms of unlawful activity.
“For some, every allegation of wrongdoing by the State – or those working for it – is treated as fact, however unsubstantiated or whatever the source, and whatever the consequential distress to victims.”
Ms Villiers’ comments came amid a continuing political dispute that is holding up a £150m package of measures to address the toxic legacy of the conflict.
The key logjam relates to the British Government’s insistence on retaining the right to withhold certain classified files from the public domain.
A number of bereaved families and campaigners want the papers handed over to shine a light on the shadowy world of the security services, amid claims of paramiltiary collusion and misuse of agents.
But the British Government has insisted the release of certain top-secret documents could compromise national security, potentially benefiting Islamic extremists or dissident republicans.
Controversy also surrounds the extent to which state agencies are co-operating with dozens of long-delayed inquests into deaths linked to alleged security force misconduct and collusion.
“Let me be clear,” Ms Villiers told the audience of students and academics.
“I am not going to say that over a period of 30 years there were no instances where members of the police and armed services fell below the high standards we expect of them.
“Sadly we know that there are some truly shocking instances where they fell drastically short of those standards.”
She added: “But to suggest that misconduct by the police and our Armed Forces was somehow rife or endemic is, in the view of this Government, a deliberate distortion and a narrative of the Troubles that is not justified by the facts.”
Ms Villiers said she would never agree with a version of the past that sought to legitimise terrorism or equate it with the actions of the security forces.
“And I believe that there is a real risk that those who seek to justify the terrorist violence of the past risk giving a spurious legitimacy to the terrorist violence of the present,” she said.
Ms Villiers said she did not seek to diminish the scale of tragedy suffered by those who lost a loved one as a consequence of State actions.
“But over 250,000 men and women served in the RUC and the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland during the Troubles,” she said.
“I am convinced that in the vast, vast majority of cases they carried out their duties with exemplary professionalism, fully within the law.”
Referring to some of the most notorious outrages of the conflict, she said: “Remember this. It wasn’t the RUC or the Army who planted the bombs at La Mon, Enniskillen, or the Shankill, or pulled the triggers at Loughinisland or Greysteel.
“But it was the RUC and the Army who, often at great personal danger, foiled countless terrorist plots and attacks and in doing so saved hundreds of lives.”