A Northern Ireland Amnesty Bill Could Thwart Victims’ Fight for Justice

A Northern Ireland Amnesty Bill Could Thwart Victims’ Fight for Justice
BELFAST, Northern Ireland—For the past 15 years, Northern Ireland has held a special “Day of Reflection” on June 21, when people stop to remember the 3,500 people killed during “The Troubles.” That understated shorthand refers to the four decades of conflict pitting British soldiers, police and pro-British loyalist gunmen against the Irish nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army, or PIRA—a conflict that finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This year, the Day of Reflection was particularly poignant, as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Troubles’ most bloody year, 1972, when 479 people were killed in the U.K. and Ireland. The vast majority of those killed throughout the Troubles were civilians, and the inquiries into their deaths held at the time were often hasty, inadequate or deeply flawed. As a result, many of the victims’ relatives and friends have been battling to bring those responsible to justice, or simply to find out what really happened all those years ago. Now, though, many fear that a new bill being rushed through the U.K. parliament is about to close off all hope of future redress. The Northern Ireland Troubles Bill, otherwise known as the Legacy and Reconciliation Bill, is likely to be on the statute books by the end of this year. Once passed, it may see lifetime amnesties granted to many of those responsible for the violence, while also shutting off pathways for relatives to ever find out what happened. “It’s a blatant, shame-faced attempt by the British government to shield the suspects and end all legal and civil avenues for families like ourselves,” John Teggart, whose father was among the nine innocent civilians killed by British soldiers in the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, told WPR. The bill has been widely condemned by victims and survivors’ groups, as well as political parties across Northern Ireland’s political and sectarian divide. Mary Lou McDonald, president of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, called the bill “enough to make a despot blush,” while Gavin Robinson, a politician with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, said it called into question “the principle that natural justice and the rule of law in this country still matter.” The bill may also further sour London’s relations with Dublin—already poisoned by disputes over the fallout from Brexit—as well as with Washington, where the U.S. Congress passed a resolution expressing its support for justice and reconciliation in March. Opponents also argue that the bill threatens the very basis of Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace, the Good Friday Agreement. According to Anna Bryson, senior lecturer in law at Queens University in Belfast, the proposals will most likely be found to breach Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. “The incorporation of convention rights into domestic law is fundamental to the Good Friday Agreement, so to breach those is to breach the peace settlement itself,” she told WPR in an interview. Ever since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the importance of addressing the Troubles’ violent legacy, efforts have been underway to deal with this difficult and sensitive issue. A range of approaches—inquiries and inquests; official apologies and “letters of comfort” for survivors; and truth and reconciliation programs and projects—have been underway ever since, often producing remarkable results. The European Union-funded PEACE program, which supported survivors, victims, urban regeneration projects and other cross-community groups, is one example. While some victims’ families would prefer not to actively pursue inquiries into the past, others refuse to give up the pursuit of justice for their lost loved ones.

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.

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.

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.

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