Call for an Amnesty referendum faces parties and governments with the big decisions

Sir Des Rea the first chair of the Policing Board and Robin Masefield the former head of the Prison Service are people of conscience and great experience. They are no ivory tower observers.  Prompted it seems by the risks to stability threatened by the Adams interrogation, in very flat language they make public their fundamental proposal that cuts the Gordian knot of humbug and misplaced principle over the availability of justice . It is what much if not most of the professional establishment really believe is necessary. It  was ducked in 1998 and postponed by Eames Bradley on the grounds of political and public unfeasibility.  With justice and policing devolved would the parties agree even to handing it over for public decision?   And who would frame the issues and steer the debate? The local parties would have to eat so many words, particularly the unionists.  The initiative would have to come from the two governments, even if the parties were seized with new courage and imagination  in a fresh round of Haas talks. Civil society could play a part but who would mobilise them? That’s always a problem.  The Community Relations Council? The Churches?    Why not start with a  well structured  TV debate after the elections?


We recognise the strength of the reaction in some quarters to what has been summarised as a call for an “amnesty”, but we continue to believe that, in society’s wider interests and the peace process, and taking account of the precedent of the early release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement, further imaginative departures from the criminal justice norm are required. As of, say, April 1998, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing look to the future. We do acknowledge the value of being provided with additional information about the circumstances of the deaths of loved ones, but we believe this can be achieved with our other recommendations. To this we would add that Northern Ireland should draw a line in a “national” act of contrition, and that the full programme of agreed measures be ratified in a Northern Ireland referendum (reflecting the value of the referendum that followed the 1998 Belfast Agreement).

In any “programme of agreed measures” the question of compensation for victims that sunk Eames Bradley would have to be dealt with. The implication here is that wrongdoing should not be a factor  and compensation should  be awarded only on the basis of need.

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