Caption: Stephen Barnes /

The British Government’s rotten amnesty

It goes without saying that the big problem with Northern Ireland is that almost everything in it is, or has been, completely corrupted by tribal politics and whataboutery. A wrong committed by one “side” can, and will, inevitably be matched by a wrong committed by the other. The history of that place is alive, and it dominates everything to the extent that sometimes it is easy to forget that right and wrong are objective, measurable things.

Here is an example of something on which we should all agree: If you commit murder, and illegally take somebody’s life, then you should be charged, face trial, and, if your guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, go to prison for a long time. The British Government, apparently, no longer agrees:

“The PSNI and Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman would be barred by law from investigating Troubles-related incidents under a British government proposal announced on Wednesday that would create an effective amnesty for security forces and paramilitaries.

The plan would end all judicial activity relating to the Troubles, including inquests and civil actions as well as criminal cases.”

There is but one decent argument for an amnesty, and it is this: Because so many of these crimes happened so long ago (Bloody Sunday was almost half a century ago) producing evidence to convict people beyond any reasonable doubt would be, in many circumstances, next to impossible. In those circumstances, you could argue, proceeding with prosecutions for events that took place in the 1970s and 1980s is an irresponsible waste of time.

There is a bad argument, too: That argument is that we should let bygones be bygones, and that prosecutions for historic crimes are more likely to result in renewed enmity, than they are to deliver a sense of justice delivered.

The problem with the first argument is simple: It is, ultimately, up to jurors, in a common law system, to decide whether the burden of reasonable doubt has been met. They hear the evidence, from prosecution and defence, and make their decision. The role of the prosecution service is not to second-guess a jury, but to demonstrate that there is a case against an accused person, and to prosecute them accordingly. The problem with the second argument is also simple: It is next to impossible to allow bygones to be bygones when open wounds fester. The fact that so many in Northern Ireland – on both sides of the political divide – see the killers of their loved ones escape justice is an open wound.

There is, to be sure, a strength of feeling on this matter in the UK that an Irish audience rarely appreciates: To the eyes of many ex-soldiers, they were sent to Northern Ireland to do an impossible job, and stationed in communities that reviled and hated them, filled with a terrorist enemy that wore civilian clothes and was cold-blooded in its attempts to murder them. They remember the lynching of two British soldiers in Belfast, and many other atrocities. The vast majority of British Soldiers who served in Northern Ireland committed no crimes, and have nothing to fear. But they sense that the hunger for prosecutions is politically motivated – an old desire to lynch a squaddie. Their comradeship is, in its own way, admirable. But it is misplaced, and wrong.

Credible allegations exist that, on Bloody Sunday, named soldiers of the British Government fired, not indiscriminately, but in a deliberate and measured way, on civilians. That some soldiers, on that day, committed cold blooded murder. If the prosecution service feels that there is a case to be answered, then a political intervention to prevent that prosecution – which is what an amnesty amounts to – is a disgraceful and repulsive attack on the course of justice.

This proposed amnesty does not, of course, apply only to British soldiers. It would apply also to paramilitary acts carried out by loyalist, and nationalist, terrorist organisations. There is and can be no moral difference between two deliberate murders. The crime is the same. Somebody who lost a husband to an IRA car bomb suffered no less a loss than a person who lost a husband or a brother on Bloody Sunday. They deserve justice, if it can be delivered, like everybody else.

The single worst, and most appalling part, of the Good Friday agreement, was the agreement to release prisoners, including those in prison for taking lives. It sent a message to the world that those murderers committed a different kind of murder. That their heinous acts were somehow on a different moral plane to a person who shoots a bank teller in the course of a robbery. It allowed convicted murderers, on both sides, to be acclaimed as heroes, and it robbed families on both sides of justice.

The UK Government should not repeat that crime now. If evidence exists against British soldiers, then it should be presented in a fair trial – with a jury drawn from outside Northern Ireland if necessary. We cannot just say “we forget”. The families of those who died never will, after all.

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