Many people will say that if ever there was a suitable case for prosecution, it’s Bloody Sunday when paratroop soldiers shot 14 people before the eyes of many of us around at time. But challenged on whether I approve of the opening of a police inquiry into Bloody Sunday that will take four years , I’ve decided to come clean and say I think it’s fundamentally mistaken.
How disillusioning is this development for the many who deceived themselves when they thought closure had been achieved on that inspirational day in Derry two and a half years ago. I was among millions all over the world who felt confident that justice had been done albeit imperfectly and that the families had agreed; the men of Support Company 1 Para had been exposed as killers of the innocent.
But when the euphoria had subsided and the cameras had departed, other influences came into play. Demands for further action grew and finally prevailed. In this situation, key questions should be answered, going beyond the current PSNI platitudes.
What kind of evidence is strong enough to justify prosecutions 40 to 45 years after the event?
Are we being asked to believe the crucial evidence rests with the people in Derry rather in the thinning ranks of the long retired soldiers involved?
How would prosecutions meet the key test of serving the public interest?
The public interest is more than whataboutery. The complaint of ”one sided justice” is flawed. In any case for many nationalists, one sided justice is the security forces getting off lightly while thousands of paramilitaries served thousands of years in jail. Justice is done, or not, case by case. The wider public interest requires answers to further questions:
Is the promise of four years of Bloody Sunday police investigations likely to encourage confessions from former paramilitaries?
Or fearing that a new precedent has been set that they might be prosecuted, has any faint hope of confessions now been killed off?
Will the PSNI now reopen investigations into notorious cases where the files are clearly inadequate, as the clear up by the Historic Enquiries Team makes crystal clear? The IRA and the UDA tended not to keep case files and the evidential trails have long gone cold .
In the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the governments fell between the two stools of justice and reconciliation. They baulked at the idea of a comprehensive amnesty advocated privately by some within government for obvious political reasons and for possible legal challenges under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life. They substituted a release scheme for prisoners after they’d served just two years for crimes committed before that date. The concession applied to any others convicted for offences so committed but put on trial later. Very few were ever arrested .Despite vehement and persistent denials, this was was an amnesty in all but name.
Unlike no other, the PSNI investigation into Bloody Sunday undermines that position. It substitutes hope for some victims, fear for the unapprehended guilty and a climate of uncertainty for all.
Would not a better option be the one obligingly provided by the solicitors Madden and Finuncane, of evidence of alleged perjury during the Saville hearings? It falls outside the GFA rubric and could put the former soldiers in the dock much earlier than four years hence.
Reconciliation or justice? Governments and communities have never been able to decide. Reopening Bloody Sunday increases the likelihood that we’ll not get enough of either.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London