Newton Emerson: Stormont’s rejection of amnesty rings hollow

NI parties miles apart on contentious issue, with little prospect of common ground

There are few things as meaningless as a Stormont consensus.

The Northern Ireland assembly was recalled this Tuesday for an SDLP motion rejecting UK government plans for a Troubles amnesty. The motion passed unopposed, but only after a debate in which there was fundamental disagreement between parties. The gaps are clearly wide enough for an amnesty to slip through with public and political resignation, whether or not that is London's perfidious intent.

By far the largest gap is between Sinn Féin and everyone else.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill dismayed other assembly members with an absurdly partisan statement making no acknowledgement of the IRA’s victims, or that an amnesty would include former IRA members, or that Sinn Féin has supported and accepted other amnesties. It would have cost nothing to make a token reference to IRA victims.


Another DUP member called for an end to 'vexatious pursuit of ageing veterans', while denying this would be an amnesty or require a general amnesty

Significantly, O’Neill was adding insult to Stormont injury. The monthly meeting of the Executive party leaders’ forum, scheduled for the day before, had been postponed after Alliance and the UUP refused to attend.

It had been Sinn Féin's turn to chair the forum, a New Decade, New Approach mechanism set up as a "safe space" to discuss difficult issues. Mary Lou McDonald, after making statements as partisan as O'Neill's, announced the meeting was solely to oppose an amnesty. Alliance leader Naomi Long said "the agenda is set by all the leaders, not the chair" and Sinn Féin was being "provocative and counterproductive".

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he would not "give cover to Sinn Féin who are misrepresenting the role of the party leaders' forum as a political prop".

While this might have been an esoteric quarrel, there had been evident public anger and ridicule over another aspect of Sinn Féin's behaviour. The party's justice spokesman, Gerry Kelly, had been prominent in media events, protests and meetings with republican victims groups over the past week, without any acknowledgement he holds a royal pardon and was the UK government's "postman" for on-the-run amnesty letters to the IRA.

No doubt Sinn Féin has devised an elaborate rhetorical construct to excuse its double standards but its political purpose is clear: the party will pocket an amnesty for republicans while playing to its base with a one-eyed pretence at opposition. The more blatant the hypocrisy the better, as it enrages unionists, corners other nationalists and sets opponents against each other.

Of course, such discord is not hard to sow. The SDLP motion “recalled” the 2014 Stormont House legacy proposals, reaffirmed in New Decade, New Approach, a deal between both governments and the five Executive parties.

However, the UUP opposes Stormont House and tried to have the motion amended. Beattie told the debate that Stormont House is "a de facto amnesty" and "not workable". Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt condemned Sinn Féin and Alliance for "shocking lack of honesty" in claiming all five parties endorse it.

The UK government has challenged Stormont to present alternatives to its proposals. There is huge scope to do so

The DUP's support for Stormont House is hollow. Mervyn Storey, briefly tipped as first minister two months ago, said: "we have concerns about some of the wording in the motion and would have supported the UUP's amendment".

Another DUP member called for an end to “vexatious pursuit of ageing veterans”, while denying this would be an amnesty or require a general amnesty.

The DUP's weakness is an under-appreciated new feature of Stormont politics. When Long and Beattie withdraw from the party leaders' forum, new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson came under pressure to do the same. Instead, he meekly noted the absence of two leaders meant the meeting could not go ahead.

A step too far

The forum was created to prevent another Stormont collapse. Donaldson will need it in the coming months as he tries to manoeuvre his way back from Westminster to the First Minister’s chair. But the DUP’s desperation to avoid a row with Sinn Féin cannot extend to reaching difficult new agreements on legacy – for now, that is a step too far.

The SDLP also declined to withdraw from the forum, as there is a limit to how far it can diverge from Sinn Féin on such a contentious subject. This is deadlock, with the misleading appearance of common ground.

The UK government has challenged Stormont to present alternatives to its proposals. There is huge scope to do so. A statute of limitations could remain but with inquests, inquiries and civil cases still possible. Or criminal trials could proceed but with sentences commuted – a model Sinn Féin and the UK government agreed in 2003. Or there could be criminal investigations but no prosecutions, as suggested by Gerry Adams and Eoin O Broin in 2017. Any of these ideas could be retrofitted into the Stormont House framework.

But even if the parties were minded to strike a new agreement, their positions are miles apart, some are self-contradictory and Sinn Féin’s is mendacious by design.

Every day this continues increases the likelihood of the UK government’s plans proceeding in full.