If the IRA was fighting a war, its enemies should get an amnesty

Northern Ireland should draw a line in a national act of contrition

In what would seem to have been a well-informed leak, the Times of London of May 6th stated in two subheadings the following: “Soldiers and terrorists to be given immunity from prosecution” (for actions taken during the Troubles, as part of plans to draw a line under the past); and “Ministers plan Mandela-style truth and reconciliation process”.

In respect to the former, it would appear that the British government intends to bring in a statute of limitations; although the mention of the intention in the Queen’s speech 2021 made on May 11th was remarkably brief: “Measures will be brought forward to. . . address the legacy of the past [legacy legislation].”

In considering the UK government’s proposals when they surface, it is imperative that we remember the scale of the deaths and to which ‘organisation’ they have been attributed, also injuries caused during the Troubles, and here I draw on the report of the Consultative Group on the Past, jointly chaired by Rt Rev Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. They noted that, as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 2001: “3,523 persons were killed.”

It is worth noting that the level of the deaths in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – had it been repeated in Great Britain – would have resulted in well over 100,000 fatalities.

“Of the total killed, 2,055 (58 per cent) were attributed to republican paramilitary groups, 1,020 (29 per cent) to loyalist paramilitary groups, 368 (10 per cent) to security forces and 80 (2 per cent) to persons unknown.

“The breakdown of those killed was as follows: civilians (1,855); members of the security forces (1,123); republican paramilitary group members (394); and loyalist paramilitary group members (151).

“In addition some 47,000 people in Northern Ireland sustained injuries in 16,200 bombings and 37,000 shooting incidents.

“A total of 19,600 individuals received a sentence of imprisonment for scheduled offences, that is crimes that the legislation determined were related to terrorism.

On May 11th – the same day that the Queen delivered her speech – a coroner concluded that 10 civilians killed in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, during three days of violence in August 1971 during a military operation were “entirely innocent” and the use of force was unjustified. While this was a welcome judgment for the families of the victims their pain is still raw, as is that of many other families.


On August 8th, 2007, I was invited in my then capacity of chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board to join a panel at the West Belfast Festival. The other members of the panel were Caitríona Ruane (Sinn Féin), Edwin Poots (DUP) and Eoghan Harris (at that time of the Sunday Independent). The first question through the chair was addressed to me: “Professor Rea, I am Patrick Finucane’s son. Your views on dealing with the past are well known but where do your views leave me and my family?”

I replied as follows: “First, I should say that ‘legacy’ is the one area where I have sought and been given permission by the Northern Ireland Policing Board to address as long as I state that I speak for myself and not the board and I do so now.

“Secondly, I sympathise with you, your mother and your family in the death of your father but everywhere I go in Northern Ireland I meet similar pain, be it the relatives of the Omagh bombing or the widows of RUC/PSNI officers. I see no hierarchy in death.

The release of prisoners should be extended to immunity from prosecution for former security-force personnel and former paramilitaries

“Thirdly, I have bought into the peace process on Sinn Féin’s terms, which I understand to be – and correct me if I have got it wrong – Sinn Féin has argued that its paramilitary wing [the IRA] was an army not terrorists; was engaged in a war; and that since the Troubles was a war, the prisoners of war should be released.” (Here I am referring to annex B of the Belfast Agreement, under which “both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners . . . and prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements”.

I then put to the audience – and I had noted that the audience included the then leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams – the following question: Does this not mean that both governments have accepted Sinn Féin’s argument? No one in an audience of 800 voiced their disagreement.

“Fourthly, in a war nasty things happen on both sides. I do not doubt that some collusion took place. While you can argue that more can be expected from a state – article two of the European Convention on Human Rights – it would seem disingenuous to do so. Sinn Féin has argued, and it has been implicitly accepted by both governments, that the IRA were engaged in a war, and not in terrorism.

“Accordingly, I would argue that as of the Good Friday Agreement, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society should embrace the future; the release of prisoners should be extended to immunity from prosecution for former security-force personnel and former paramilitaries; there should be no more ‘legacy’ inquiries; and our concern should be with ‘Troubles’ victims at their points of need and meeting those needs with as much speed as is possible.”

To the above I would now add: fifthly, Northern Ireland should draw a line in a national act of contrition.

Implicit acceptance

In the Queen’s speech the leak of May 6th is confirmed as accurate and as such it is an implicit acceptance by the British government of Sinn Féin’s argument that the Troubles were a war, that paramilitaries were soldiers, that the investigation of (former) attributed paramilitary killings is extremely difficult and costly, that the concentration on alleged security force killings is unfair and that what is being proposed is sensible and just. I concur. Should not the Irish Government (and the US administration) do the same?

The statement from the secretary of state for Northern Ireland on the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest concluded with the following words: “This government wants to deliver a way forward that will provide information about what happened during the Troubles in a way that helps families get the answers they want and lays the foundation for greater reconciliation and a shared future for all communities.”

Sir Desmond Rea was inaugural chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and is also a former chair of the Local Government Staff Commission and the Labour Relations Agency