The recent decision by Boris Johnson’s government to put a five-year time-bar, save in exceptional circumstances, on the prosecution of British troops for crimes committed during overseas operations, came as a welcome relief to soldiers. Those who served their country abroad now know they are effectively safe from stale prosecutions in the distant future; veterans who have long since moved on can now live in peace.
But note the word ‘overseas’. Why not everywhere? The answer is easy: the Irish elephant in the room. The government feared that any attempt to time-limit prosecutions over events during the Northern Ireland Troubles would stir a hornets’ nest. It chose instead to leave those who had served in Northern Ireland exposed for ever.
Now, though, it has finally bitten the bullet. With Boris’s backing, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has proposed a complete bar, without even an exceptional circumstances get-out, on any prosecution arising out of pre-1998 events connected with the Troubles. And this bar is non-partisan: it includes the IRA and other paramilitaries as well as soldiers. As a quid pro quo, Brandon Lewis commits to a process of truth and, we hope, reconciliation between the parties.
At first sight this looks inauspicious. Those nationalists who see themselves as perpetual victims of Albion, even when they joined supposed moderate parties like the SDLP, were unimpressed with the idea that any British soldier still living should escape what they saw as his due.
The Irish government, gratified at another chance to wrong-foot Boris, said the idea was a huge mistake. And last Friday, Keir Starmer ponderously joined them, with an oleaginous reference to the need to listen to the stories of all victims. When these plans were first mooted a couple of months ago, IRA victims’ relatives in mainland Britain, backed by the Mail on Sunday, slated the plan to absolve terrorists such as the Birmingham pub bombers.
Nevertheless the naysayers are wrong, and Brandon Lewis must persevere. Here’s why.
First, there are the simple practicalities. After the Good Friday agreement we now know that Tony Blair cravenly and deviously allowed private notes to be sent to IRA bigwigs assuring them of safety from prosecution. Since then, criminal proceedings against nationalist terrorists who matter have become near-impossible: witness the debacle of John Downey, whose trial for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing collapsed in 2014 when he brandished just such a letter in front of the judge.
In the last fourteen years, only seven republican prosecutions have taken place. Of course, this suited the nationalists just fine. There were still numerous retired soldiers who had been active during the Troubles, and it was a simple matter to demand smugly that proceedings continue without fear or favour, secure in the knowledge that in practice it was an almost entirely one-sided process.
But then, last month, the nationalists had a shock. A legal technicality over confessions caused the trial of two veterans to be aborted and suggested most other similar prosecutions of ex-soldiers would go the same way. In these circumstances, whatever the self-righteous protestations of human rights lawyers about a culture of impunity, the only sensible course is to call it a day for both sides.
Secondly, introducing an amnesty is morally right. The Troubles lasted from about 50 to about 25 years ago; they are long past, and need to be put behind us. Whatever the morality of prosecuting people for ancient misdeeds (which itself is open to question, though not as a matter of English law), it is repellent that the lives and liberty of men now long-retired and mainly in their 60s and 70s should be regarded as pawns in some political chess-game between unionists and nationalists seeking to score points off each other.
This also disposes of self-righteous arguments based on listening to victims. In so far as victims (meaning victims on either side, including those in Birmingham) claim that closure can only come with the hounding through the courts of old men, a decent government needs to take issue with them. It needs to explain that there are other ways of achieving truth and reconciliation, and that reconciliation means that men caught in the cross-fire of events in the 1970s have a right to live in peace without being pursued for actions taken in different times when attitudes were different.
Thirdly, once the social media effects are discounted, Brandon Lewis’s stand is good politics. Apart from overtly sending a message preferring reconciliation to retribution, an amnesty on both sides will take a great deal of wind out of the sails of Sinn Fein and the nationalists. Sinn Fein will find it difficult to play the card of unfinished business arising from the Troubles without a table to play it on. Instead, it will increasingly be reduced to persuading the voters of Northern Ireland of the virtues of the curious kind of Corbynite socialism it has been advocating in the south. How persuaded by all this the sceptical voters of Ulster will be remains to be seen.
The Irish have a surer knowledge of their history, and to their credit a much greater feeling for it, than the English. (Anecdotal evidence has it, indeed, that in the 1970s and 1980s one of the hazards faced by the UK in initiating talks with nationalists was the latter’s habit of bringing almost any conversation round to Oliver Cromwell and Drogheda and keeping it there.) But history should be discussed through argument and not through a form of historical lawfare, especially when that lawfare incidentally involves playing dice with the freedom of old men.
For that reason if no other, Boris and Brandon Lewis are on the right track in seeking to take the law out of this.<//>
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