Yesterday was notable for people in the British press taking notice of the Attorney General’s unpopular intervention with his suggestion of an amnesty that isn’t quite an amnesty. David Aaronovitch (pointing out that the Old Bailey trial of John Downey is about to commence on January 14th) had this to say in his column in The Times:
There is something odd about an Attorney-General, for whatever motives, not defending the process of justice. Politicians have to make shabby compromises, but we don’t expect our law people to suggest them.
When we bend the rules we must only do it to save people and protect society. Anything else means a slide into arbitrariness. Northern Ireland, 15 years into peace, surely can do without this slither.
Con Coughlin writes on defence and foreign policy for the Daily Telegraphy which is probably the UK newspaper closest in temperament and outlook to the British Army. On the eve of last night’s Panorama, he asked “Why doesn’t Panorama investigate the IRA’s secret hit squads?”
The glib answer is that the BBC is unlikely to find three former IRA men who would open up in that strangely admirable and candid way those ex soldiers did last night. [Erm, you got pinged on this on Twitter. What about The Disappeared Mick? – Ed]
Nevertheless, the question exposes to public light some of the softer agreements which surround the 1998 and 2006 agreements around the way a compromising past is dealt with.
As Denis Bradley pointed out on The View last night (and since he has pretty much spoken to every player in the current political game, he should know):
… people tell lies around this all the time. The people who want an amnesty keep saying they don’t want an amnesty. And the people who say they want the truth don’t want to tell the truth.
As Seamus Mallon pointed out earlier on BBC Radio Four’s World at One:
“If you don’t bring these prosecutions and if you don’t try to ensure that the law is there for everyone to answer, then you’re actually negating the whole thesis of law within society and that is, I’m afraid, what has been happening in instances such as this.”
The problem is not just the resolution of the past. Rather it is the slither into arbitrariness which Aaronovitch correctly identifies as the real and abiding problem. Law and justice become affectations rather than something politicians believe applies to them.
For more mundane proof of just how lightly Northern Irish politicians routinely treat the law, after nearly two years of hyperbole and all manner of accusations illegality from DUP and SDLP Ministers and Sinn Fein spokesmen, the Red Sky issue has finally been resolved, with a report saying that there was no evidence of fraud, just poorly managed contracts by the NI Housing Executive, which included instances of undercharging as much as overcharging.
The law and the legal system are one of the citizen’s few methods of redress against the established powers, public and private.
Somewhere, the salami slicing of law has to stop, not least since it is making dishonest fools of almost anyone choosing to get involved with NI politics. And, as Brandon Hamber said last night, ‘if we spend our time saying can we find the one thing that will help us deal with the past, I don’t think we are going to find that one thing…’
Sacrificing the rigour of the justice system may also mean sacrificing the needs of the future to suffocate the ghosts of the past.
Will the one way traffic against the state continue? It’s clear the cops are not best pleased at being made the primary fall guys in this process (having inflicted 55 fatalities to the Provisional’s 1700).
And yet, without a formal amnesty the way forward remains something of an unpredictable swamp for those directly involved in a mass campaign of murder and mayhem. If there is a possibility of getting one, they might start by having the honesty and the decency to ask out loud.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty