For Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was among 21 civilians killed in PIRA bomb attacks on a series of Birmingham pubs in November 1974, the injustice continues. Six men were initially jailed for the crime, but in 1991 they were found wrongly convicted and released. Since then, there have been no more prosecutions. “Why should mass murderers be allowed to walk free?” Hambleton asked. In general, getting a judicial inquiry or inquest into atrocities committed during the Troubles has often been an uphill battle, dogged by what many victims’ families say is official foot-dragging and a reluctance to even grant a hearing. As an example, the U.K. state only agreed to compensate families of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre on June 13 this year—51 years after their relatives were killed. Meanwhile, among the inquests that have been held, the Bloody Sunday inquiry is the most well-known—and the most controversial. Running from 1998 to 2010 and costing somewhere between £200 million and £400 million, or $245 million to $490 million, it found that British paratroopers had shot dead 14 innocent civilians in Derry/Londonderry on Jan. 30, 1972. The British government issued an official apology to the relatives of those killed and charged one of the paratroopers, named in the inquiry’s final report only as “Soldier F,” with a double murder. Yet, since then, Soldier F has not faced trial, due to further lengthy legal battles surrounding his case. Some in the U.K.’s governing Conservative Party have championed the cause of veterans facing prosecution, including Soldier F, and pressured U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to honor the party’s 2019 election manifesto pledge to end “vexatious” persecutions of former British soldiers. This pressure has now gained extra force, as Johnson moves to shore up support following recent threats to his leadership from within his own party. Thus, the new bill is now being fast-tracked, reducing the amount of parliamentary scrutiny it has to undergo. If passed as is—most likely in the fall—the bill will establish the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, or ICRIR, headed by a government-appointed official. The ICRIR will then hear voluntary testimony from those involved in Troubles-related cases, and, if it judges these accounts to be “true to the best of [the testifier’s] knowledge and belief,” it must grant them a lifetime amnesty. According to Bryson, in effect “oral history and memorialization are being privileged as a smokescreen for impunity.” Ian Jeffers, head of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Commission for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland, or CVSNI, told WPR that young people in Northern Ireland continue to live under the shadow of the conflict, often in some of the most deprived areas of the U.K. “The bill is destructive for them and very dangerous for victims and survivors—one told me it was like a slap in the face,” he added. The law’s potential impact on public trust in legal institutions is indeed a key question, particularly when, according to Jeffers, there’s a huge tranche of investigations currently underway that would stop if the bill goes ahead. For Bryson, perhaps that’s the point. “Some might argue that recently the legal system here has been working rather too well and there is an urgent need to shut down access to the type of information that has come to light through the courts and effective investigations,” she said. One of those investigations is Operation Kenova, an official U.K. police inquiry into the activities of “Stakeknife,” the British army’s top agent within the PIRA during the Troubles. The case has already led to allegations of collusion between security forces and illegal paramilitary groups during the Troubles. And in a recent inquiry into a series of killings by pro-British loyalist gunmen back in the 1990s, the police ombudsman of Northern Ireland, Marie Anderson, said she found evidence of “collusive behaviour” between the gunmen and the Northern Ireland police of the time. On this year’s day of reflection there was much to think about, as the shadow of the Troubles continues to lie across Northern Ireland. That shadow will only grow longer if justice and accountability for the worst crimes committed during the conflict are denied.
Opponents argue that the proposed bill, which could see amnesty granted to perpetrators of atrocities during the Troubles, threatens the very basis of Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace, the Good Friday Agreement.
Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist, writer and analyst who has been writing on European, Middle Eastern and Indian Ocean affairs for many years and for many outlets, ranging from The New York Times and Asia Times to Al Jazeera and Foreign Affairs.