The UK government has come under heavy criticism in recent years for its improper partisanship in its dealings with political actors in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by the trust and supply agreement between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party after the elections 2017. But Boris Johnson and his Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis have now united all major parties in the region, from Sinn Féin to the DUP, in opposition to their amnesty plan for the murders linked to the unrest.
The new DUP chief, Jeffrey Donaldson, describe a cross-party discussion with Lewis last Friday as “robust”. The tone of a item by Lewis in the Sunday Telegraph, with his rather irritated invitation to critics – “if they have a better way of dealing with the issues of Northern Ireland’s heritage, please let us know” – will not have improved the mood. In a repeat of the pattern established in the final stages of Brexit negotiations, the Johnson government has placed British political considerations above any concerns about stability or consensus across the Irish Sea.
Johnson speech in the House of Commons announcing the plan last week included a gratuitous provocation that played well with the right-wing press:
The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed forces who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecution well into their seventies and eighties. Finally, we are proposing a solution to this problem, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to end the unrest and enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward.
In fact, no court has found the small handful of cases against former soldiers “vexatious”.
A case arising from the murder of official IRA chief Joe McCann in April 1972 recently collapsed because the judge ruled that the statements made by two soldiers accused of shooting McCann while he was unarmed were inadmissible. Shortly thereafter, the prosecution decided to drop the cases involving two other veterans, known as Soldier F and Soldier B, who were accused of murdering civilians on different occasions in Derry in 1972. The trial of Soldier F – thereafter appointed in parliament by SDLP politician Colum Eastwood – was the only criminal case linked to the Bloody Sunday massacre, more than a decade after Lord Saville and David Cameron’s report acknowledgement that the 14 people killed by British soldiers that day were innocent.
Whether the decisions in these cases are correct or not, judges and prosecutors have been clear on their reasoning. They argued that statements originally taken from soldiers in 1972 could not be used because they were not made with caution. While this argument is legally valid, it harkens back to the poor investigative processes of the early 1970s, when no one in the UK security forces wanted to see soldiers tried for murder. Edward Heath’s government has endorsed Lord Widgery’s obviously dishonest report on the Bloody Sunday murders.
There was nothing “vexatious” about trying to make amends after an unacceptable delay, even if the legal effort failed to escalate the barriers deliberately put in place four decades ago. The fact that the ex-servicemen have now reached retirement age, which their British media supporters have insisted so much on, only underscores how long the families of the victims have been waiting for justice. Lord Widgery’s report remained the authorized version of events until 2010, despite all the evidence to discredit its findings. Relatives of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre in August 1971 did not receive recognition that they were “entirely innocent” until May of this year (with a apologies of Boris Johnson which they found “totally unacceptable”).
There has never been a single, comprehensive process designed to resolve questions of justice or find the truth. This is a fragmented and one-off case, involving various official bodies: the Historical Investigation Team (HET) created by the Northern Ireland Police Service to investigate unresolved cases; the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s Office, which produced several reports; separate investigations by judges, lawyers and police charged with examining some of the Troubles’ most controversial episodes, from Bloody Sunday to the assassination of lawyer Pat Finucane.
In 2014, the then Northern Irish secretary, Theresa Villiers, denounced a “one-sided approach that focuses on the minority of deaths in which the state was involved rather than the vast majority which was the sole responsibility of terrorists”. This skewed as numerous investigations examined allegations of complicity between the state and loyalist paramilitaries and found ample evidence of it. Villiers called for “a proportionate focus on paramilitary misdeeds, rather than the almost exclusive focus on state activities, which characterizes so many processes now underway.”
The figures do not support his assertion about the direction of the investigations. In 2017, the HET had investigations completed of 1,615 cold cases involving 2,051 deaths. Almost two-thirds of those cases – 1,038 – were attributed to Republicans. Only 32 were awarded to the British Army, with the Loyalists making up the remainder, with the exception of nine whose perpetrator was unknown. Insofar as it possesses the focus has been on the state’s record in some high-profile investigations, which simply reflects the past record of impunity.
Bloody Sunday was far from the only example of mass killing during the unrest. It was, however, the only time that British state employees, officially charged with maintaining public order, killed innocent people in front of the world press. Lord Saville’s investigation took so long because there were so many witnesses and so much documentary evidence to sift through. Saville would not have needed to practice if Widgery had delivered a legal rather than a political report in 1972.
Throughout the conflict, the British and Irish states treated the IRA as a criminal conspiracy and sought to put its members behind bars with all the resources at their disposal. It was not necessary for IRA members to shoot a gun, plant a bomb, or transport illegal weapons: membership in the organization was a criminal offense in itself. Thousands of men and women have served prison terms as part of the IRA campaign, many for long periods.
There was no amnesty for the IRA prisoners after the Good Friday agreement: they were released on condition that they supported the agreement, and liable to re-arrest if they had. a link with dissident Republican activities (a clause the authorities have invoked in a number of cases). The HET has devoted considerable energy to investigating unsolved murders linked to Republicans. The idea that IRA members were given a free pass while soldiers and police were subjected to disproportionate scrutiny is simply wrong.
There was no chance that British soldiers would serve long prison terms: even if the prosecution was successful, the age of the accused would preclude it. What the relatives of the victims were really looking for was an acknowledgment of the responsibility of the state itself. Nuala O’Loan, the first police ombudsman, sentenced the plan unveiled by Johnson and Lewis as a “terrible, terrible betrayal of the victims and their families”. It certainly won’t help them “draw a line” or “move forward”. But that’s not what the Johnson government is trying to achieve.
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