Northern Ireland’s battle lines are deeply entrenched scars. The 30 years of Troubles traces the lives of those dubbed the ‘ceasefire babies,’ born after the 1998 agreement. It beats in well-raked, tense arguments on national identity from bands to language, a segregated education system, and the paramilitary poltergeist.
The divisions outline the sky-piercing Divis towers, the arterial alleys webbing through Tiger’s Bay, at the bulking interface ‘peace walls’ where Nationalist and Unionist communities meet and which saw blazing riots in recent months. Old wounds lay open in shared pain – more than 3,500 people dead from across these communities, and families fighting the British government for any shred of information even decades after their relatives were killed. Despite opposing narratives, grief comes to be a rare plain of unity in the North. The approach to legacy issues and how to deal with the past is where the scars pulsate and throb.
Not that the North’s anguish impacts the British government agenda. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis outlined plans to bring about legislation that would ban all prosecutions related to The Troubles. The government’s approach, he said, favoured ‘information recovery’ over investigations, with the introduction of a statute of limitations on incidents before 1998.
Such protections would apply to former soldiers and veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries. The proposals include ending inquests into legacy issues and civil actions (though there has yet to be clarity on cases currently in the courts). There are eight live cases, with 45 inquests still waiting to be heard, while the PSNI’s legacy unit is dealing with over 1,000 unresolved cases, paused during the pandemic.
Lewis describes this de facto amnesty, which had been threatened for a long time, as ‘the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation.’ Boris Johnson said the plans would help to ‘draw a line under the Troubles.’
But these lines are not drawn for victims, or even so much for British soldiers. They are drawn for the establishment. It dislocates promises made for legacy processes in the Stormont House Agreement – by no means a perfect line of action and resisted at every corner by the state. But the agreement was nevertheless compliant with human rights and largely supported by victims groups.
The government’s new proposals, by contrast, introduce impunity for state-sanctioned murder in Northern Ireland and throw a veil over collusion. Indeed, you could conclude from the government’s determination to introduce an amnesty that collusion is even more insidious and complex than what has been revealed over the years – the recent rejection of an inquiry into Pat Finucane’s murder, which in 2012 David Cameron admitted suggested ‘shocking levels’ of state collusion, only compounds this suspicion.
In truth, the government’s line in the sand is a barrier to truth for families and survivors. Johnson will never face the family of Carol Ann Kelly, a 12-year-old girl shot by the British Army less than ten yards from home, carrying a pint of milk. Or Kathleen Gillespie, who feels ‘robbed’ of justice in her fight for her husband Patsy, who was murdered by the IRA in a bombing that also killed five soldiers.
The Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Kingsmill and Birmingham families – representing people murdered and maimed by both state actors and paramilitaries – have also shared their grief and disgust at the proposals. It says a lot about the process that led to this point that paramilitaries were briefed this week on the proposed plans before agonised relatives.
For years, the Tories have displayed public contempt for families seeking truth and accountability. It is steeped in their narratives – court pursuits were repeatedly labelled ‘vexatious,’ while the pathetic former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley said that soldiers and police involved in killings were ‘fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.’ And one can’t forget Johnny Mercer’s unrelenting smear campaign in the name of veterans. Despite the Tory line, what scuppers true reconciliation is not victims seeking due process, but 50 years of state cover-up.
The years have been punctuated with resistance to judicial process, but this is the most head-on pursuit of a world where the state can kill and retroactively exonerate itself. Victims’ families have had to fight for every piece of information – the shadow of Ballymurphy and the recent 16 month inquest absolving 10 innocent people murdered that day, looms large. Out of 156 civilians murdered by the British army in the Troubles, only four people have ever been prosecuted for murder.
Lewis’ announcement comes just a week after charges were dropped against two former soldiers who killed at least three unarmed Catholic civilians, one of whom was 15 year old Daniel Hegarty in Derry in 1972. In May, the cases against Soldiers A and C were dropped for the shooting of 24-year-old Joe McCann, also in 1972. That year was the deadliest of the conflict – 500 people were killed, at least 254 were killed by the IRA, 121 by Loyalist paramilitaries, 80 by the British Army, and six by police forces.
Victims on either side of the North’s divides are often used as pawns, and this is an opportunity for the state to absolve any responsibility for their suffering. As the striking splash of West Belfast’s Andersonstown News read: OFFICIAL: ‘you’re all Paddies now’. ‘We knew it was coming, because we know that the next time the British act honourably in Ireland will be the first,’ the paper says.
The British media’s ignorance and scorn made this remark seem all too accurate. The Daily Mail went for ‘AT LAST, JUSTICE FOR OUR TROOPS,’ with ‘crimes’ in snide quotation marks. Google John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old unarmed man with learning difficulties shot dead by ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings, and you’ll be met by sob stories in right-wing papers about Hutchings’ frailty, the fact that he is a great-grandfather, and details of his declining health. Empathy doesn’t stretch across the Irish sea.
In reality, little faith can be put in a truth and reconciliation process where the government continuously resists and deceives. The proposals outlined in the Stormont House Agreement were the agreed mechanisms, and Tory backtracking and erasure in its place cannot be accepted. And it may not be, Amnesty International has vowed to challenge the new proposals in court. That is likely to be only the first salvo in a battle over their legitimacy.
Multiple victim support and family-representing groups have voiced their discontent – the Ballymurphy families have called it a ‘huge betrayal,’ and Relatives for Justice say it marks ‘the single worst day for all victims during our peace process.’ Sandra Peake, the chief executive of the Wave Trauma Centre, said: ‘Many do not have expectations of prosecutions but they do have expectations around investigations, and I think that removing prosecutions, you remove that glimmer of hope.’
Consensus on any issue in Stormont is rare, but while they aren’t all singing from the same hymn sheet, all five of the Stormont parties have expressed opposition. So too have the Irish government. It is a rare achievement that any political ‘line’ can bring together such a diverse coalition of opponents.
All of this is occurring at a time when Unionism is weathering its biggest identity crisis in the last 25 years. But these proposals are less grounded in the North, and more a feature of recent displays of national chauvinism by the Tories, playing out against a backdrop of demonising immigrants and the continued culture wars of Brexit Britain. I write this while an advertisement for the British armed forces punctuates every TV programme break in the North, blaring house music that soundtracks the girlbossification of recruiting agents of the state.
‘Moving forward,’ that great Tory platitude, is not possible while trauma and unimaginable loss are branded irrelevant and irksome by the state; when your right to any semblance of justice is snatched away to please and protect the upper echelons that enact your pain in the first place. It is not for Johnson, Lewis, or the Tories to template a shared Northern Irish future.
Multiple public consultations have shown that the public aren’t behind amnesties. This is a population that reckons with intergenerational trauma and fractious paramilitary power today, tethered to a violent past. The prime minister cannot ‘draw a line,’ as he claims, under a conflict that lives on in other guises.
Families won’t give up, and victims and their relatives won’t be collateral damage for a political manoeuvre aimed to win votes at home. Legislating away the right to pursue justice must be resisted together.