Adrian Guelke a South African a Queen’s academic and a leading authority on post-conflict resolution joins the growing list of reputable figures calling for an amnesty. He criticises the two governments for lack of involvement (although the unfortunate Eamon Gilmore can’t be faulted for trying almost right up to the moment of his resignation as Labour leader)
An unfortunate sequence of events has unfolded that has the potential to threaten the peace, including the failure of the Haass talks, histrionics from some senior members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Boston College archives affair that culminated in the arrest of Gerry Adams. These challenges have been compounded by some unhelpful and sensationalist commentary in the media, the determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland not to be out-victimed and a lack of understanding of how other societies that have needed to face up to dealing with the past after a long-running violent conflict have actually done so. These circumstances ensured that the atmosphere surrounding recent elections was different from that in 2011.
The difficulties (over OTRs and the Boston tapes) have enabled commentators in the North, especially ones with a visceral dislike of the DUP-Sinn Féin duopoly, to question the moral foundations of the political settlement itself. Paradoxically, the very success of the settlement in reducing the threat of renewed lethal political violence on a sustained basis has increased its vulnerability to high-minded criticism of this sort. At the same time, the argument that it is time to move on, rather than engage in endless recriminations about what happened during the Troubles, has gained little traction amid the lurid headlines about past atrocities..
Truth and reconciliation In the context of dealing with the past, South Africa’s example tends to be invoked across the political spectrum, but with a cavalier disregard for what happened there.
The basis of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission lay in the agreement in the country’s transitional constitution: that “amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past”.
Adopting the same principle in relation to the actions, omissions and offences of both the paramilitaries and the security forces in the course of the Troubles would serve Northern Ireland well. It is time for this nettle to be grasped by the two governments, before another crisis comes along with the potential to destabilise the political settlement that underpins the peace.
However strong the case, it is still hard to see how an amnesty could be achieved. Like the Troubles themselves which dragged on for ever, people’s lives are not affected quite badly enough for something radical to happen and the politicians are the beneficiaries of the uneasy status quo. The Gerry Adams arrest produced a demonstration of republican outrage similar to the loyalist tantrums when Paisley used to get himself arrested ; lots of other people hugged themselves with schadenfreude , the international media dropped by, sniffed the air and went home.
Next day thousands turned out for the Giro d’Italia .Of course if you were looking for significance in all these things you could find it. Guelke is careful to say that the combination of events has the “potential” to threaten the peace process. But isn’t living that potential as much part of the process as peace itself? Every player in the game, governments included, are looking to their narrow interests. They are all withholding their own distinctive contribution to a more secure peace while hypocritically calling on the others to come clean.
Guelke is right: “the determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland not to be out-victimed” is a basic problem .Victims themselves are the pawns in a political game. Can they ever get justice? The question is amenable to answer. The amnesty issue can be approached by considering their plight objectively. The way through is first to re-examine the case record of the Troubles. Would more rigorous searches for evidence produce more prosecutions than the trickle of the last 20 years? If it it can be shown that the evidence isn’t available the call for justice is exposed as a sham. Before this point is reached and the public is more convinced, we may have to go through an elaborate process of evidential review rather than rely on a couple of soundbites from senior lawyers and policemen.
The obligations of governments don’t end there. Why is the British government dragging its feet over opening the secret archives? An amnesty and with it a more general resolution will only come after the governments remove the taint of cover up from their own behaviour. They are as responsible as the omerta of the paramilitaries for the moral ambiguity that eats at the heart of the peace process.
I’ve only just noticed an article under David Cameron’s name in the Belfast Telegraph briskly calling for progress on flags, parades and the past. Who really writes this stuff? Not a hectically busy PM steeped in calculation over his party’s fortunes and on the way to Brussels to talk about the future of Europe.
His quick rattle through the brief raises more questions than answers. He says that “no government I lead” will ever be a party to selective justice applying to soldiers and police officers only. That there are rival versions of selective justice seems to have been left out of the briefing document. What does he mean? Does he know himself? If paramilitaries start talking will he go back on his refusal to hold any more inquiries? If they’re suddenly keen to oblige against all expectations, will he reverse the chilling effect of the Boston tapes affair, eat his own words and grant them immunity? If he’s willing to do that what was the arrest of Gerry Adams all about? Whether or not immunity is granted why should anybody talk? If there’s no evidence against them why should they bother? What sort of “push” can he give the local parties? The British government has so far turned its back in any move that might unlock the deadlock over the past such as supporting a general truth recovery process with legal protection for disclosure. You don’t have to look very hard to see the likely reasons. Fuller disclosure of state operations in Northern Ireland sets a precedent for revelations about state techniques for containing jihad and race conflict. And that isn’t going to happen.