The error that betrayed ‘H’

How much Irish history does Jed Mercurio know, writes Rev David Clarke?

Monday, 10th May 2021, 6:30 am

That question sprang to mind as, along with 14 million others across these islands, I watched the closing episode of ‘Line of Duty’, created by the said Jed Mercurio.

For the record, it was only the second time I had tuned in, but the hype about the programme made me feel that unless I watched, I would seem a dinosaur.

The identity of ‘H’, the mastermind controlling corrupt policemen, was finally revealed. Ian Buckles was trapped through basic spelling errors in documents he had written over a number of years. Repeatedly, he had spelt the word ‘definitely’ incorrectly, using a letter ‘a’ before the letter ‘t’…. definately!

Jed Mercurio's Line of Duty

A similar error was conclusive in another controversial case, more than a century ago.

Back in 1888, one of the most brutal murders to stain Irish history took place in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly-arrived Secretary of State for Ireland, and his Under-Secretary, Mr. Burke were murdered by a group calling themselves ‘The Invincibles’.

‘The Times’ newspaper claimed that Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, was implicated in the crime.

They published a letter in which Parnell seemed to approve of the murders. Parnell himself denied the authenticity of the letter, and a Commission was set up to establish the facts.

‘The Times’ newspaper paid a Mr. Pigott £5,000 for the letter, which he himself claimed to have bought in Paris.

In the witness-box, Pigott was due to be questioned by the brilliant lawyer, Sir Charles Russell a native of Killowen near Newry. Russell surprised everyone by handing Pigott a sheet of paper, and asking him to write down some words for him.

Russell then dictated some words… likelihood, livelihood, proselytism and so on. And then he addes, as though it were an afterthought, “Yes, and the word ‘hesitancy’”.

When the paper was handed to Russell those in the courtroom knew from Russell’s expression, that he had got what he wanted. In the letter, the word hesitancy was spelt wrongly, with an ‘e’ rather than an ‘a’. Pigott was a forger, trapped by a spelling error.

He left the witness-box, and shortly thereafter shot himself.

Modern educationalists may differ, but for Mr. Pigott and ‘H’ spelling certainly did matter!

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked on the impossibility of hiding every trace of wrongdoing. ‘Commit a crime and the world is made of glass, some damning circumstance always conspires’.

Perhaps it may be a spelling error, a fingerprint or a DNA match. In any event, such tiny things illustrate an old Bible truth, ‘your sin will find you out’ (Numbers 32;23).