In June 1994 an RAF Chinook helicopter, travelling from Northern Ireland, flew into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre, killing everyone on board. Alongside the four crew, the 25 passengers included almost all the UK’s most senior Northern Ireland intelligence experts. It was a security catastrophe, and because the crash happened in dense fog there were no witnesses.
The following year an RAF board of enquiry, led by two air-marshals, concluded that it was the result of pilot error. They found the two young flight lieutenants, Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, aged 28 and 30, guilty of gross negligence in flying too fast and too low for the prevailing conditions.
But the pilots’ families and many others, including a number of prominent figures, disagreed. In the years that followed there were several inquiries and reports, all of which challenged the original conclusion or left the question of blame open.
In 2001, my father chaired the last of these inquiries. It was one of the final jobs he undertook as a retired Law Lord. He found that the air marshalls had effectively inferred negligence from the absence of any evidence to the contrary, a decision that would have been impermissible in any civil court; and that they were therefore wrong to have reached the conclusion they did.
As Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Secretary at the time of the original inquiry, wrote in the Sunday Herald, shortly after my father’s report was published: “The immediate reaction of the government was made by armed forces minister Adam Ingram within hours of the publication of the report. He could hardly have had time to read it, but he appeared to dismiss it as containing nothing new. The implication was that the government would not budge.”
My father was quietly furious, not because this was yet another report the government was going to kick into the long grass, but because he felt the case against the young pilots was far from proven and feared that a genuine injustice was being perpetrated against them. Sad then that he didn’t live to hear the news, just this week, that the BBC have uncovered an RAF internal report, written two years before the accident, which seriously questioned the airworthiness of the Chinook on a number of counts. The report had never been seen by any of the previous inquiries; the clear implication being that it had been buried by the MoD.
Another review is currently under way and now, at last, it seems that the pilots’ names may be cleared and the families might see the justice their sons deserve. All of which leaves one gasping at the cynicism of an organisation that would rather blame two young men than admit to its own failings. Though perhaps that’s a naïve view. Even in these more transparent times, the MoD carries with it a hefty legacy of secrecy.
On the other hand, maybe the MoD is not so different from the many other organisations where that kind of cynicism and secrecy and lack of proper regard for individuals is a fact of daily life. On the Dark Angels course at Merton we talked a lot about the parlous state of dysfunction that so many organisations seem to have reached these days. Mark Watkins, who lives and works in Denmark, put it particularly well with this description of a kind of reverse alchemy: “Imagine you’re on your way to your first day in a new job. You’re full of enthusiasm, purpose, the wish to contribute, to make a difference, to be useful. How hard does your organisation then have to work to turn that gold into lead, that energy into apathy?” The answer is either quite hard, or not very hard at all. Both are sadly true.