It’s not easy being secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The province, still unreconciled after a 30-year insurgency that ended in 1998, also sits on the remaining fault line of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The British government’s cabinet minister, Brandon Lewis, has responsibility for this piece of Ireland that passes all understanding. His unenviable task is to referee between Northern Ireland’s tribal politics and malfunctioning devolved administration. In this neck of the woods, the past is always just ahead of you. Rancour is in the DNA. But, in the last two weeks, he has managed to do something almost unique—unite all local political parties in opposition to plans to give Britain’s armed forces and, by extension, the terrorists they were sent to quell an amnesty against prosecution.
The British government has proposed that it will end all criminal and civil procedures for Troubles-related cases. This is primarily to stop what it sees as vexatious litigation against long retired servicemen—a statute of limitations which must necessarily also include terrorists.
One can see why this proposal is superficially attractive. The criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is jammed up with historic cases, the majority of which involve alleged wrongdoing by police and army during the period before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when the Troubles ran hot. By contrast, victims of Loyalist and Republican terrorists—the huge majority of the 3,500 people murdered over 30 years of carnage have not seen justice and are now faced with their sacrifice being entombed in ‘information retrieval’—a coldly bureaucratic and completely inadequate replacement for the rule of law and due process.
The apparent logic of the amnesty concept suggests that if the threat of prosecution were removed from soldiers and police officers, perpetrators of state violence would subject themselves to a truth recovery process. This would apply to the tiny fraction of the 10 percent of killings by state forces that happened under legally questionable circumstances. For the other 90 percent of victims of terrorists, the notion that their killers in some of the most bestial circumstances imaginable would come forward to bear their souls in front of bereaved family members is an act of either craven cynicism or breathtakingly naivete.
There is very little hope left for those maimed and bereaved by Northern Ireland’s three-decade-long spasm of sectarian savagery. As the years pass, survivors and perpetrators die off and the prospect of people being brought before the courts grows dimmer. Politicians argue that endless inquests and inquiries on the past are damaging the chances of a settled future in Northern Ireland and that a line must be drawn to allow the healing to be complete.
I would argue the precise opposite and I’m in good company. Mick Mulvaney, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former special envoy for Northern Ireland, said in a recent interview, ‘People in Northern Ireland know that an amnesty will not “draw a line under the Troubles”, as the prime minister has suggested. It will simply lock them in a box.’ An amnesty that allows people who broke the law—particularly terrorists who operated no moral code, no rules of engagement, and whose disgusting and futile insurgency brought horror on the civilian population—is an act of expedient moral cowardice that no government should ever contemplate. Amnesty fractures the foundations of the contract between citizens and the state sworn to protect them through maintaining the rule of law. Hope for the possibility, however faint, that conscience or science or new information will make terrorists accountable under the law for the harm they have caused simply cannot be traded away in return for immunity from prosecution for members of the security forces. Such a tawdry compromise would stick in the throats of those who wore a uniform and stood against the anarchists they are now being equated with.
That box of Mulvaney’s won’t stay shut. It will set a new low benchmark for how Her Majesty’s Government deals with violent extremism that will be seen around the world. It will animate grievance and retraumatise victims. It will be the ultimate betrayal to a population that endured a campaign of murder and bombing not seen since the Blitz. Approximately 3,500 souls were lost in the conflagration of the Troubles. That’s nearly a thousand more than those who perished in the September 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and woke the U.S. to the threat of terrorist attacks against the homeland.
President George W. Bush was resolute in his determination then. The people of Northern Ireland should expect nothing less from their prime minister now, however hard that course:
‘And the people of my country will remember those who have plotted against us. We are learning their names. We are coming to know their faces. There is no corner of the Earth distant or dark enough to protect them. However long it takes, their hour of justice will come. Every nation has a stake in this cause.’