Britain’s stance on Troubles killings brings more anguish to victims

London denies this is a de facto amnesty for killers, but that is how it is being perceived

From the beginning of his time in Belfast, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis signalled that he was going to deal with the past in his own way, and not be bound by past agreements.

The cynical believe his intentions are motivated by British prime minister Boris Johnson’s determination to ensure that no British soldier should face prosecution for Troubles killings.

Johnson’s focus on the British army in the House of Commons on Wednesday offered substance to that suspicion, where he concentrated on “the sad fact” of now elderly ex-soldiers facing “the threat of vexatious prosecutions”.

“We’re finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward,” he said.


This has long been Johnson’s approach. Even before he was elected to 10 Downing Street, he said “we need to end unfair trials of people who served queen and country”. If anything, that view helped him get to number 10.

London denies this is a de facto amnesty for killers, but that is generally how it is being perceived. The perpetrators of some of the most horrific acts of the Troubles will not face justice in this life.

These include the British army's action in Derry, but it includes, too, the IRA's slaughter of Enniskillen, the Disappeared, and the Ulster Volunteer Force men responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

Instead, Lewis’s proposals, say London, do not offer criminal justice but they offer “acknowledgment, accountability and truth” which, it argues, are a form of justice. Also, Lewis argues that he is being honest about what can be done.

2014 agreement

However, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insists the British government's plans are not a done deal and he is still investing some hope in the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

That deal proposed an historical investigations unit to investigate Troubles killings; an independent commission so perpetrators could tell the truth but not be prosecuted; and an oral history archive for victims’ stories.

Lewis’s proposal in the Commons dispensed with the first element of the Stormont House Agreement, a historical investigations unit, while seeking to hold on to the prospect of finding truth for the bereaved.

But in ending any prospect of prosecution, he has caused renewed anguish and trauma to many victims. Most knew there was little chance that anyone would go to jail, but there was still hope.

For them, there also was a relieving symbolism in the law still having a long arm. For many, there is nothing abstract about this, since many see the killers of their loved ones as they go about their daily business.

The five main Northern Irish political parties also oppose the proposals, but there will be a suspicion that, privately, some politicians have long known that very few people were ever going to be convicted.

In dealing with the past in such a cold-hearted pragmatic manner, Lewis will have taken from their hands a problem Northern Ireland politicians could never resolve.

While Sinn Féin deplores his actions, there will be little doubt that former IRA members, perhaps some now heavily involved in Sinn Féin politics, will be relieved there is no chance that they will ever stand in the dock.

Some 3,700 people were killed during the Troubles with tens of thousands injured. Most occurred before 1998, the cut-off point for Troubles prosecutions, as proposed by the Northern Secretary.

Figures issued by the PSNI late in 2019 showed that the PSNI Legacy Investigation branch had 1,130 cases on its books, touching on the deaths of 1,421 people over decades.

Of these, 583 deaths were attributed to republicans, 294 deaths to loyalists, 289 deaths to the British army, 51 to police, 69 were of unknown attribution and 135 were non-paramilitary related deaths.


In the past 15 years there were many attempts to deal with the past, but the template was the 2009 Eames Bradley Consultative Group report on the past.

It proposed investigation, truth recovery and reconciliation, but it never got off the ground because it suggested a £12,000 (€14,000) “recognition payment” to all those killed, or hurt, including paramilitaries, many of them killers.

But at least it can be said that the Northern Ireland Secretary is embracing the possibility of truth recovery, as recommended by Eames and Bradley, if not of justice.

Under former chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI's Historical Enquiry Team (HET) chronologically dealt with more than 1,600 cases between its formation in 2005 and 2014 when effectively it folded.

It was not successful in terms of convictions – it had just three – but it did provide the truth behind hundreds of killings, which was a comfort to those still aching with loss.

For those who still grieve, Wednesday was another unhappy, unsettling and miserable day. If anything positive is to come from it all, the IRA, loyalists, the British army, MI5 and so many other players face just one question.

Will they now, decades on, deliver the truth, if not the justice, the victims require? Will Sinn Féin, the only one of the main Northern parties linked to a paramilitary organisation, urge the IRA to tell its own story, truthfully?

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times