Fintan O’Toole has turned his attention to support a new proposal for dealing with the legacy. While well intentioned, this one has a flavour of rummaging in the bottom drawer for an idea.
The proposal (which I have signed, along with many others) is a product of widespread consultation with victims, with combatants from all sides and with people in politics and academia. The nub of it is conditional amnesty: a system in which those with personal knowledge of violent incidents can give that information to the victims and their families without fear of prosecution. It is a hard-headed exchange: truth for amnesty.
The proposal is to establish a reconciliation commission, headed by a mutually agreed international chairperson, or two senior British and Irish judges. Under this commission, there would be two implementation bodies, one aimed at “truth recovery”, the other at “justice facilitation”. The first, staffed by independent professional civilian investigators, would gather and verify information from all available sources, including perpetrators. (Perpetrators who do not avail of the conditional amnesty would remain at risk of prosecution should their offences subsequently come to light.) The second would help victims and bereaved families to access and deal with this information in a way that is most dignified and sensitive to their trauma. There are already good models for doing this developed, for example, by Wave Trauma Centre.
Why should this exercise be any more successful than the others? While the debate badly needs to be pulled together, the elements of it have passed beyond setting up another review of fundamentals. The options have been exhaustively examined. The gaps are clear.
One fundamental problem is the lack of incentives for former paramilitaries and state servants “to tell the truth” about their actions. Crudely, what’s in for them if credible sanctions are not involved? Isn’t the identity of the victims the best guide as to why they were singled out or were collateral damage? As for political reconciliation, a political outcome of sorts was achieved decades ago.
Deadlock is unlikely be broken without firm government nudges. But the other problem is that governments are not in the habit of being pressurised to change position in open inquiries unless minded to do so anyway. However unpalatable it may be in Ireland, it’s fairly clear this government would prefer to act on its own, beginning with shielding former soldiers from “vexatious” legal action. If protecting solders leads logically to wider action as Defence Committee MPs suggested three years ago, so be it.
The Stormont House Agreement draft Bill is in limbo but not yet superseded. To demonstrate the limitations of the justice system legal academics in Belfast have called for trials on the available evidence to proceed ending with either a sentence of up to two years on conviction or by executive review, with no sentence at all. Poor justice you might think, but at least criminality would have been established.
To go further, the problem as ever is how to shift people from entrenched public positions, stressing ” public”. Probably a majority of the great and good who have had some responsibility for public affairs are in favour of drawing a line under legal process. The DUP and Sinn Fein are privately not far behind.
Key responsibility lies with the British government far beyond the interests of former soldiers. Two moves are necessary. The first is a review with results made public of the quality of evidence available for prosecution. The second is a credible explanation from the British government of the interests of “national security” which are inhibiting some opening of state records to yield further information about ” who pulled the strings as well as who pulled the trigger”. The trigger pullers seem safer as disclosure would violate their basic rights in their lifetimes.
A scenario for solution along these lines could be constructed without another inquiry into the fundamentals. The British would like to bring the Irish government along but would have to involve them to achieve it. Dublin have plenty of their own disclosures to contribute.
The scenario should be accompanied by cutting the final Gordian knot by making recognition payments to victims on the basis of need. Roy Jenkins in his time a noted reformer, once said that after many years of dither and delay, some of the biggest reforms have to be been taken ” on the run” – (but not in the Irish sense!)
“The Troubles,Argyle Street , Belfast,Northern Ireland-1970” by Kaspar C is licensed under CC BY-SA
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