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


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.

The difficulties have enabled commentators in the North, especially ones with a visceral dislike of the DUP-Sinn Féin duopoly, to question the moral foundations of the political settlement itself. Paradoxically, the very success of the settlement in reducing the threat of renewed lethal political violence on a sustained basis has increased its vulnerability to high-minded criticism of this sort. At the same time, the argument that it is time to move on, rather than engage in endless recriminations about what happened during the Troubles, has gained little traction amid the lurid headlines about past atrocities.

In the case of the political parties, the wish to be seen to champion victims of past violence has trumped all other considerations. Alone of the political parties, NI21 has shown a willingness to speak sense on this subject and to give priority to the wider public interest in sustaining the peace for future generations. But the party’s lack of electoral success shows it has secured no reward for doing so. That strengthens the argument for action by the two governments as the parties in the North left to their own devices are unlikely to rise above partisan considerations, particularly given how the victims issue has played out in these elections, with headway made by the Traditional Unionist Voice and the Ulster Unionist Party through their exploitation of the on-the-runs and the abandoned plan for a peace centre at the Maze prison.

Truth and reconciliation In the context of dealing with the past, South Africa’s example tends to be invoked across the political spectrum, but with a cavalier disregard for what happened there.

The basis of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission lay in the agreement in the country’s transitional constitution: that “amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past”.

Adopting the same principle in relation to the actions, omissions and offences of both the paramilitaries and the security forces in the course of the Troubles would serve Northern Ireland well. It is time for this nettle to be grasped by the two governments, before another crisis comes along with the potential to destabilise the political settlement that underpins the peace.

Adrian Guelke is visiting fellow at Queen’s Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice

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