Is there merit in Larkin’s proposals?
Analysis: North’s Attorney General must have a thick neck to face inevitable backlash
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin, whose proposal to end prosecutions in Troubles related murders has been heavily criticised by both nationalist and unionist politicians. File Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
The North’s Attorney General John Larkin must have a thick neck and a broad back because he must know the metaphorical blows that are going to rain down on him. In fact, they have started already.
His proposal that there should be no further prosecutions for the thousands of killings relating to the Troubles that took place up until the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998 is sending shock-waves throughout Northern Ireland and further afield.
He believes there should be no further investigations, inquests or inquiries into the unresolved killings of the conflict up to 1998. That’s well-over 2,000 deaths. That incorporates many families, many parents, many brothers and sisters, many extended relatives, many friends who are appalled at this radical suggestion.
It brings to mind the angry reaction that greeted the proposal that the families of all those killed in the Troubles should each receive a “recognition payment” £12,000. It was the idea that scuppered the Eames-Bradley consultative group which was trying to deal with the past. Dennis Bradley and Lord Eames ended up as target practice for politicians and victims for a long time and similarly it will be open season on Mr Larkin for a while to come.
Mr Larkin spoke this morning of the logic of his proposal. “More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock,” he told the BBC. “It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries.”
Of course there is logic to what Mr Larkin is proposing but perfectly understandable emotional response frequently trumps cold reason. And that is what is happening now.
The BBC Radio Ulster Stephen Nolan Show that runs from 9-10.30am each weekday morning is often a weathervane of public reaction, the majority of which was not good today.
The opprobrium was coming in from all sides: from victims of republican and loyalist paramilitaries; from those killed by the British army and RUC; from relatives of those killed in Omagh, on Bloody Sunday, on the Shankill and in all those hundreds of other attacks that ranged from the late 1960s until 1998 and beyond.
But at some stage, emotions will settle a little and perhaps there will be more careful consideration of Mr Larkin’s proposal. Centrally, he is making a distinction between inquiry and prosecution, and the truth. Prosecution just won’t or can’t work because of the passage of time, he suggests.
But could his proposal open the door for groups like the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries and the British security services to be more forthcoming? They haven’t been up until now, despite all their gilded talk.
This point is important and bears repeating: victims might not get justice but they might get truth. Would that be enough for them? Certainly for some it would. After all anyone prosecuted at the maximum would serve two years in prison under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, and as Mr Larkin says, most will not be prosecuted.
The timing of his comments is very interesting. They come as US diplomat Dr Richard Haass edges into the most intensive part of his talks aimed at achieving agreement on parades, flags and the past by Christmas.
Did Mr Larkin issue his bombshell proposal in a vacuum? It’s something you would not rule out considering the very independent nature of the Attorney General which he has clearly and controversially demonstrated on occasions.
But if there is some undisclosed backroom-prepared choreography here, his proposal will be even more groundbreaking and remarkable. The DUP said the Northern Executive was not briefed on his comments, and that may be the case. But equally it would be surprising were this totally a solo run. More will emerge in the hours and days ahead on whether he purely acted on his own.
What Mr Larkin has proposed is certainly brave to the point almost of recklessness but whether it is wise will take time to determine. Much of the initial response is hostile, astonished and indeed angry. But at the very least he has catapulted a never-ending grim debate that takes place mostly in the background to the forefront of political and community discourse.