Troubles prosecutions – Is now the time to draw a line?

By Tomás McGoldrick, Ireland Correspondent 

Northern Ireland atrocities

The suggestion by Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin that there should be no further inquiries, inquests or prosecutions for Troubles related killings before the 1998 peace agreement has met with almost universal condemnation.

The majority of victims have rejected the idea as an outrage, it isn’t supported by any of the parties in the Executive and David Cameron – just back from telling another state how to deal with the legacy of its own civil war – has called the idea ‘dangerous.’

This would apply to all conflict-related deaths, whether carried out by republicans, loyalists or the state – the British soldiers responsible for the killings on Bloody Sunday wouldn’t face prosecution, there would be no further inquiry into the Claudy bombing or any prosecutions for the Enniskillen bombing.

The families of the victims feel their loss would be swept under the carpet, for the sake of the North of Ireland as a whole being able to move on. Why should one killing just before the Good Friday agreement was signed in April 1998 be ignored and another in May still potentially be investigated?

It is difficult for many to accept that those responsible for the violence will get away scot free, when the same thing was suggested by the abortive Eames/Bradley report on dealing with the past back in 2009 the idea was drowned out amidst the furore over the families of dead paramilitaries receiving compensation payments.

The part of John Larkin’s proposals which has been given less attention is the suggestion that government files are released to victims’ representatives and historians. This would shed further light on state collusion as well as who those officials thought the main players were in the various paramilitary outfits.

If there is no chance of prosecutions then participants are likely to be more open with the truth. The deal which the British and Irish governments reached with the IRA regarding the Disappeared saw information provided which led to the recovery of the remains of some of these victims. Without the agreement that no forensic evidence gathered would be used in prosecutions would the IRA have been at all forthcoming? Similarly, it was agreed that those weapons which were put beyond use by the paramilitary groups wouldn’t have any forensic evidence taken from them which could be used to link them to killings.

For the prize of taking the gun out of Irish politics concessions to finding justice have already been made, the most obvious of these being the release of prisoners after the Agreement. Seen in this light, Larkin’s proposals are the next logical step in dealing with the past.

There is a chance that by drawing a line under past killings the people of Northern Ireland can begin to focus on the present and the future instead of concentrating on the past. In the same way that Éamon de Valera’s amnesty to IRA men in 1932 went some way to heal the bitter legacy of the Irish Civil War, these proposals could be the start of a process of reconciliation. There is never going to be an agreed narrative to what happened during the conflict, attempts by one side or the other to impose their own version of what happened and why are futile.

Would this new dispensation make Gerry Adams more likely to answer the questions being asked regarding his alleged involvement in the Disappeared? In the current situation if anyone was to admit involvement in any killing or even being a member of the IRA they are looking at a two year prison sentence.

The families of those killed and injured during the conflict understandably want to see justice done, but as Larkin points out, as time goes on and witnesses’ memories of events become more unreliable, it seems the vast majority of cases will remain unsolved. Does anyone really think that any members of the Military Reaction Force, an undercover British Army unit who operated a shoot to kill policy against IRA members and supposed sympathisers in Belfast, will be prosecuted?

It’s doubtful that the securocrats in Whitehall and Palace barracks would let this happen, it’s believed pressure was put on David Cameron to renege on his promise for a full inquiry into state collusion into the killing of Pat Finucane. A de facto amnesty already seems to apply to State forces, why not extend this to all parties?

The fact of the matter is that if Larkin’s proposals are adopted it may be that the families who lost loved ones in the Troubles will not get justice, but perhaps they will get the truth. The question remains, which is the most important?

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