Why an amnesty is needed in the North

A weakness in the Haass agenda has been lack of engagement by the British and Irish governments

As the results of European and local elections across these islands are absorbed, it might seem that at least in Northern Ireland little has changed since the last major test of opinion there, the Assembly elections in 2011. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

As the results of European and local elections across these islands are absorbed, it might seem that at least in Northern Ireland little has changed since the last major test of opinion there, the Assembly elections in 2011. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Wed, May 28, 2014, 01:07

As the results of European and local elections across these islands are absorbed, it might seem that at least in Northern Ireland little has changed since the last major test of opinion there, the Assembly elections in 2011. The reality is a bit more disturbing.

An unfortunate sequence of events has unfolded that has the potential to threaten the peace, including the failure of the Haass talks, histrionics from some senior members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Boston College archives affair that culminated in the arrest of Gerry Adams. These challenges have been compounded by some unhelpful and sensationalist commentary in the media, the determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland not to be out-victimed and a lack of understanding of how other societies that have needed to face up to dealing with the past after a long-running violent conflict have actually done so. These circumstances ensured that the atmosphere surrounding recent elections was different from that in 2011.

A weakness in the Haass process from the outset was the lack of engagement by the British and Irish governments. The relatively recent change in the political composition of both governments probably didn’t help insofar as neither government seems to have fully grasped how dependent political progress in Northern Ireland has been on conflict management from London and Dublin. The distance of the British government from the Haass process was reflected in the contradiction between its urging that the parties should accept the Haass proposals unequivocally, and being equivocal itself about who would meet the financial costs of the institutions Haass had proposed in a vain effort to satisfy all parties of the Executive on the subject of dealing with the past.

Misleading the public The impression created by coverage of the on

-the-runs issue has been that members of the Provisional IRA have been able to escape justice because of a deal done under the last British government. In fact, the scheme put into effect by the government fell far short of an amnesty for the on-the-runs. The mistake in John Downey’s case that led to a judicial finding of abuse of process was the responsibility of those within the PSNI given responsibility for carrying out the checks on whether the names put to them were wanted in connection with any offence. It is outrageous that those who made these mistakes should seek to defend themselves by misleading the public as to the very limited nature of the scheme. It may be unusual to tell individuals who might consider themselves persons of interest whether they are wanted for questioning or not, but it is far from wrong in principle, particularly given its relevance to ensuring such individuals did not gravitate to the dissidents.

Martin Mansergh has already lucidly laid out the story of the Boston College tapes in these pages. Most of the blame in this affair lies with those who made it known that they had explosive secrets to divulge and yet imagined that this material could be kept confidential insofar as that suited them. At the same time, the British government should have considered how the interests of anyone legitimately seeking to establish an archive through the collection of oral testimony for the sake of posterity might have been protected. However, the police cannot be faulted for wanting to follow up leads laid by others.

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