Opposition to the British government’s Troubles legacy Bill is muted, considering that everyone opposes it.
Perhaps even Northern Ireland cannot ignore that most positions on this issue are one-sided at best, two-faced at worst.
At every level, rejections shamelessly cancel out. All Stormont’s political parties oppose the legislation, currently being rushed through Westminster. But unionists object only to an amnesty for terrorists; Sinn Féin to an amnesty for former security force personnel.
Protecting soldiers is the Conservative government’s blatant agenda. Successive Irish governments have operated “a unilateral amnesty for the IRA”, as former minister for justice Michael McDowell confirmed last year. There were theatrical intakes of breath at this statement of the blindingly obvious.
Washington has condemned the proposals, yet US governments were supportive and even involved in similar amnesties for decommissioning and the retrieval of victims’ remains, using the same mechanism of immunity for testimony in the new legislation.
Labour has condemned the Bill. In 2005, a Labour government tried passing an amnesty for soldiers and paramilitaries, agreed with Sinn Féin, giving up only when the SDLP drew attention to it.
The victims sector is split into groups by political outlook. This was not inevitable and plenty of experts warned against it. The sector’s funding body could have required organisations to be cross-community, or prioritised that objective, as is the case with most public funding. Instead, a sense has been created of competing partisans, all too easily dismissed. People can be quick to suspect official divide and conquer strategies in Northern Ireland, yet it is rarely alleged in this instance.
A complete system for dealing with the past was supposedly agreed by the British and Irish governments and all Stormont parties, except the UUP, in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. This was re-agreed in the 2015 Fresh Start deal and 2020′s New Decade, New Approach. The proposals originated in 2013 talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass.
The fact everyone keeps agreeing this package without implementing it suggests it has never really been agreed and all sides are simply dancing around the matter.
London has heeded some criticism of its latest proposals. When plans for the legislation were announced last year, the intention was for a blanket ban on all investigations, prosecutions and trials, criminal and civil.
This has been removed and the Bill now more closely resembles Stormont House, with the same basic structure of interlocking institutions for information retrieval, reconciliation and historical archives.
The main difference is there will be no historical investigations unit - so although prosecutions will be possible with new evidence, nobody will be looking for new evidence.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says this means the Bill is not compliant with the Human Rights Act, whose right to life is interpreted as requiring a proper investigation of all deaths. This argument is not the final word often assumed: if the Bill is passed, years of legal challenges lie ahead.
However, everyone knows there would be little point to an investigations unit in practice. The passage of time has rendered Troubles prosecutions and convictions almost impossible, certainly from the height of the violence in the early 1970s. The collapse of trials last year finally spurred the government to propose its new Bill.
Anyone paying more than passing attention to this issue recalls the fate of the Historical Enquiries Team, an interim body shut down in 2014 because it suited republicans and the PSNI to do away with it. Former chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, who created the team to get investigations under way ahead of a full legacy agreement, has described its closure as “a massive mistake”. Had it kept going, every Troubles murder would have been reviewed by 2019, perhaps in time for even cases from the early 1970s to be plausibly referred for further action. It is too late to start again. Dealing with the past is literally becoming an academic exercise.
It is not academic for victims, of course. The lack of public outrage against the Bill should not be seen as indifference. People are only too aware of the complexities of the issue, but they are conflicted about what is achievable.
Opinion polls show strong disagreement with an amnesty yet strong agreement with offering immunity for testimony, as in the new Bill. Even when pollsters describe this as a “conditional amnesty” only a fifth of respondents object. A quarter neither agree nor disagree and the remainder are in favour. These views are roughly the same across unionists, nationalists and “others”.
Although there may be little chance of anyone volunteering such testimony, there is still more chance of it uncovering fresh information than a criminal investigation, prosecution or trial, as the public regretfully accepts. That is why, in political terms at least, the government can expect to get away with its legislation.