The decision under pressure from the courts to hold a public inquiry into whether the Omagh bomb might have been prevented blows a gaping hole in the UK government’s flailing attempts to wrap up the Troubles. The fact that Omagh falls just outside the terms of the limited amnesty in the GFA has become a legal almost a pedantic technicality after 25 years. As the inquiry will focus on the state’s security agencies, the trail of evidence is no more likely than ever to lead to the conviction of perpetrators, a route that has been already compellingly examined in a series of criminal and civil actions that ultimately failed to nail anyone on the precise issue of who planted the bomb.
However a new pathway can be discerned for the Legacy Bill at present going through the Lords. It has opened because the courts have challenged “national security” in preventing inquiry into awkward details over how potential warnings of the bomb en route were handled between different agencies in the UK and the Republic. The terms of access for the Omagh inquiry will be closely examined for their effectiveness and are bound to have implications for state disclosure as a whole. But more than that. They undermine any notion of wrapping up the Troubles in little more than a desk top exercise.
The continued focus on the state will not receive an unalloyed welcome from everybody. Dealing with the past is politicised in utterly familiar ways. Unionist groups are deeply concerned at what they claim is an imbalance between examining the conduct of the security forces and the great majority of cases against paramilitaries, the effect of which is to down play paramilitary especially IRA guilt and support a republican narrative of the Troubles. Republicans are not alone in claiming the UK’s government main aim is to cover up state illegality involving exposing innocent Catholics to state sponsored attack.
The Legacy Bill is assailed from all quarters in NI and beyond. The minister steering it in the Lords is none too keen on it himself. It will either be totally transformed by amendments or replaced. It is impossible to imagine it passing in its original form.
The Bill’s key instrument the awkwardly named Independent Commission for Reconciliation & Information Recovery (ICRIR), has been fiercely criticised for combining truth recovery under immunity with further legal investigation. It replaced without explanation the hitherto favoured independent Historic Investigations Unit of the Stormont House Agreement. The government has now offered to strengthen the ICRC‘s powers of legal investigation and punish witnesses attempting to deceive it. The unionist Malone group want a better balance between locally recruited investigators from the PSNI and outsiders in order to correct what they see as the imbalance between investigations into the state and the IRA.
The basic problems remain, particularly those of justice. What incentives or indeed effective sanctions exist for perpetrators to come forward with the truth? Is it worth titanic new and hugely expensive efforts to find new evidence to support a conviction against anybody after all these years? And even if they did would they deepen alienation rather than promote reconciliation? The first conviction of a soldier in the Troubles with a suspended sentence in the McAnespie case only last week will divide opinion. But the idea of abandoning legal process after a few years entirely smacks of high presumption. Cancelling the Chief Justice’s five year programme of Troubles inquests after the Ballymurphy verdict is an affront to judicial independence. It has the flavour of oppressive executive action that would be welcomed in Putin’s Russia and by Netanyahu’s government in Israel. Reports that Sunak’s government might finally be prepared to leave the Convention on Human Rights would simply be disastrous.
Jon Boucher is champing at the bit to release the Kenova report into 200 killings. Why is it being delayed especially the report on Stakeknife which was due any day now ?
To date ( late 2022 from 2016), the Kenova team has provided the north’s director of public prosecutions with more than 50,000 pages of evidence relating to 17 murders and 12 abduction cases, and has interviewed more than 300 people. Surely this is a process worth continuing .
So what may be the way ahead for dealing with the Legacy?
The fierce unionist objections to the human rights lawyers who have been defending due process are largely misplaced. The HR lawyers are right to leave the door open for future legal process even without penalty. Unionist objectors to their work will hardly disagree. The idea of “lawfare” like “woke” is overdone and is an undesirable polarisation. It’s the politically motivated not the lawyers who are responsible and they will not be deterred.
Nor is the Provo narrative anything like as powerful as some believe. The defence of the state record will not be strengthened by reflexive secrecy or cover up.
I offer two further suggestions. Since the early 70s I have recommended that a tally be kept of convictions and sentences person by person. This was not done because no agency was responsible. It would never have been easy and would be even more complex today. But even a qualified tally would dispel the odd notion that the Provos got away with it. They didn’t. And what is more, few of them even complained about wrongful convictions in the Diplock courts.
Secondly a panel of historians must be given access to the written and oral records with protocols they can accept and free of any attempt to steer them towards a fatuously limited “timeline.”
While political agreement on dealing with the legacy is still elusive, we may be getting somewhere, piece by piece.
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