Boris Johnson’s approach to dealing with historical prosecutions in Northern Ireland has achieved that unique political feat in the Province: uniting both sides in revulsion at what is being proposed.
Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis is expected to announce a statute of limitations ending prosecutions in cases which pre-date the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Reports suggest that this will apply not only to members of the security forces but also republican and loyalist paramilitaries.
This was always a likely end point in Northern Ireland’s ‘process’, indicative of the British political class’ reflex instinct to wish the Province and its troubles away. Labour kicked this off with their mass release of paramilitaries and the issuing of so-called comfort letters to IRA members telling them they were no longer wanted in connection with hundreds of attacks and murders.
Back in 2001, a Conservative MP noted that following the release of terrorist murderers from prison, it created the impression ‘that they have committed a unique kind of crime that the law can treat differently’. That MP is now Prime Minister and is seeing this sorry situation towards its natural conclusion.
Whereas Labour’s approach towards the past was based on the need to expedite Sinn Fein’s entry into the process, Johnson’s motivation here seems to be based on chucking some red meat towards a particular wing of his party. The reaction from elements of the sympathetic press spoke of ‘justice for our troops’. But focusing solely on ending the so-called ‘witch hunt’ against servicemen is folly when it denies those whose lives were ruined by violence the opportunity to see justice delivered.
Under the government’s proposals, the families of the dozen people killed at the cenotaph in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day 1987 by the IRA – an attack so blatant in its venom towards the UK, its armed forces and the values its leaders speak of – will have justice denied to them. Is this a price worth paying for keeping Conservative MPs happy?
This debate should not simply be viewed through an orange vs green prism; the families of those killed by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy in 1971 were told by an inquest in May that their relatives were innocent. Should they not have recourse to pursue justice? A uniform should not provide exoneration. And many troops who served in Northern Ireland with gallantry will no doubt feel uneasy about being equated with the gunmen they sought to defeat.
The party of Airey Neave and Ian Gow – both men murdered by republican terrorists – deciding not to pursue the murderers of the Provisional IRA in the interests of political expedience shows the lack of seriousness among Tories regarding Northern Ireland. It’s worth asking two simple questions here: what was the point of fighting terrorism only in the end to let these people off? What will this mean for how Britain responds to terrorism in the future?
If it pushes through these proposals, the Government will be condemning Northern Ireland and its people to years of conjecture and recrimination; it has been proven the world over that a state-sanctioned ‘pact to forget’ fails to provide finality for those living in a society shaped by violence in the way Northern Ireland has been. Instead, the shadow of the past will continue to exacerbate divisions.
We are repeatedly told about the success of the peace process in bringing a semblance of normality to Northern Ireland. But many will ask what sort of process is it that removes and denies victims and their families access to the fundamental principles of justice? Victims of the Troubles on both sides deserve better than this inadequate and deficient law.
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