North caught in tangled web ‘dealing’ with the past

Proposed deal with banned loyalist groups shows the difficulties of ‘conflict resolution’

Tuesday saw publication of the UDA/UVF/Red Hand Commando "conflict-resolution initiative", the fruit of 18 months of talks between the banned loyalist groups, facilitated by Tony Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and Strangford Ukip Assemblyman David McNarry.

Among the sweeteners apparently on offer in exchange for the dismantling of the groups’ paramilitary structures are “an end to historic (sic) prosecutions” and “additional community jobs and facilities”.

The British government would dearly like to deliver “an end to historic prosecutions”.

Its latest scheme for achieving this outcome – the third in a decade – was abandoned at Westminster last Monday, after victims’ groups pressed/persuaded all of the Executive parties to withdraw support for the measure.

This won’t be the end of it. It would be a breach of faith for the British authorities to allow soldiers who killed in the line of duty to be brought before the courts.

But any measure giving soldiers amnesty would perforce give republicans and loyalists amnesty, too – and vice versa.

Effective veto

It is this linkage that gives families campaigning for the state to be held accountable for the killing of citizens an effective veto over amnesty legislation – including possible legislation arising from the “conflict-resolution initiative”.

Letting paramilitaries off the hook would logically mean dropping inquiries into, for example, the Ballymurphy massacre, and abandoning the PSNI’s criminal investigation of Bloody Sunday.

Nationalist parties, in particular, are not in a position to accept any deal along these lines.

This is a key issue in relation to “dealing with the past”, but it won’t be dealt with any time soon. The Powell/McNarry plan envisages a loyalist communities council “play[ing] a full and meaningful role in connecting loyalism to civic society”.

The council will comprise two members each of the UDA, UVF and RHC (membership of any of which is currently a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.)

The communities council can be expected to make clear that “additional community jobs” means not only more work in the community but more community workers, thus establishing the promised connection between the loyalists and civil society.

The loyalists will make the point that there’s nothing in the proposed package which has not already been provided to republican groups.

The other major report due this week – from the three-person group appointed following the murder in August of Kevin McGuigan to examine the state of republican and loyalist ceasefires – has to some extent been pre-empted by the Powell/ McNarry proposals.

In relation to the specific subject of their brief, however, we can say with confidence that the “troika” will endorse the assessment of PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the McGuigan murder but that the PIRA leadership had neither been aware in advance nor approved of the killing.

Although the PIRA hadn’t gone away, Hamilton elaborated, it was not targeting members of the security forces or endangering the peace process.

In response, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt pulled his party out from the Executive, complaining that the continued existence of the IRA in itself represented a breach of faith on the part of Sinn Féin.

The implication that the Ulster Unionists had learned only in August that the IRA was still around excited a mixture of disbelief and derision across the North.

The common view is that Nesbitt’s intention had merely been to wrong-foot the DUP. (If so, this has been one of the few UUP manoeuvres of recent years that has worked. Peter Robinson’s party has had to jig along the hokey-cokey corridors of Stormont to be seen to be trying to do something.)

The Powell/McNarry proposals, of course, are based on acceptance that the loyalist groups need not go away at all as long as they don’t target the security forces or otherwise threaten the process.

Few doubt the ability of Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers’s troika to come up with a form of words which the DUP can point to as “progress” sufficient unto the day and which Sinn Féin can simultaneously present as confirmation of its own peaceful bona fides.

Politically sub judice

Villiers’s monitors will not be able to report that all has been well with the loyalist ceasefires.

To some extent this factor has been rendered politically sub judice by Tuesday’s announcement of the organisations’ terms for dismantling paramilitary structures.

Negotiations will still be needed on the loyalists’ wish list.

No one will want to disturb the delicate political terrain on which the negotiations will have to take place. Any reference to the 50 or so murders committed by loyalist paramilitaries since their supposed ceasefires 21 years ago will be seen as distinctly unhelpful.

This week’s tangled, elaborate efforts to edge sideways into the future don’t encourage confidence that the North is on the brink of putting the past behind it.

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