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.

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  • Reader

    A stimulating proposal, right up to the face plant in the very last sentence. Brian – was that last sentence from you or from Des and Robin?

  • Brian Walker

    Reader, Last sentence is from me, outside the quotation marks

  • Reader

    Thanks – I was confused by your use of the phrase “The implication here”, which didn’t seem to relate to anything in the proposal, and I wondered if you had access to Des and Robin’s thought processes outside the quote.

  • Brian Walker

    . Reader, No I have sought no access to their thoughts. A referendum question has to be framed for a yes no answer. As in the 1998 question it could refer to details elsewhere. But as compensation is a separate if linked question and not referred to in the article, I infer that this equally toxic issue would not be part of their package, otherwise they would have mentioned it. It would indeed need to clarified in advance though

  • sergiogiorgio

    The politicians have clearly shown they are incapable of progressing the matter (like so many others) so why not throw it over to the Vox populi.

  • The problem with the Good Friday Agreement might be that it was enthusiastically endorsed by nationalists and got a lukewarm response from unionists.
    I cant see how a “simple referendum” would have any validity unless the majority was overwhelming.
    A referendum with a 51-49 …..looks a very bad beginning.
    Im not sure how we could ensure a majority in each community…results by constituency or DEA or …can we really have two or three referendums or different coloured ballot papers.
    Taking it away from politicians and putting it into the hands of “the people” is a tempting thought but there are pitfalls.

  • Kevsterino

    FJH, as I recall the referendum on the GFA, one real problem for those trying to decode the result was it was difficult to ascertain how many unionist voted for the GFA and how many voted for the GFA plus ‘the note’ from Tony Blair to David Trimble.

    I’m still not sure…

  • Charles_Gould

    Seems unlikely – no party to my knowledge (perhaps NI21?) favours an amnesty so unless they’re completely out of line with public opinion I don’t think it could win.

    Moreover the victims are most unlikely to favour one, and for voters it would seem too much a slap in the face for victims.

  • ” and how many voted for the GFA plus ‘the note’ from Tony Blair to David Trimble.”


    In a mediated settlement any promises on record that are made by one of the mediating parties to any of the participants as part of the settlement process become part of the settlement. Such was the case with side letters from Jimmy Carter to both Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. So it would be likely that most unionists would be voting for the latter.

  • notimetoshine

    Some form of referendum framework may be our only option on victims and the past, I for one can’t see either the political will or indeed the capacity for our parties to reach an agreement on either.

    Maybe we need a binding referendum if only to conclude these running sores in our local politics if we are ever to move on.


    . “Seems unlikely – no party to my knowledge (perhaps NI21?) favours an amnesty so unless they’re completely out of line with public opinion I don’t think it could win.
    I disagree with this entirely. Some parties clearly favour an amnesty. There are parties that favour an amnesty for any security forces personnel involved in carrying out unlawful acts during the ‘troubles’ while other parties favour an amnesty for members of certain paramilitary organisations who carried out unlawful acts during the troubles. I have never yet heard certain parties call for soldiers guilty of unlawful activities on bloody Sunday to be prosecuted not certain other parties call for those responsible for the murder of soldiers to be prosecuted. If these don’t amount to de facto amnesties one wonders what does? It is a myth that no party wants an amnesty. It may be the case that no party wants an amnesty for the ‘other side’ but that position is hardly the basis for sound policy making.

    Surely it is a time to draw a line not for reasons for morality, justice or the lack of them, but in order to move forward and start remembering the past instead of living in it? Surely it is time to put all our resources into improving the lives of those who still suffer from troubles related incidents. The pursuit of futile and costly investigations with little chance of success helps no one. It does not bring the dead back.

  • Charles_Gould

    Not now john

    We will have to disagree. I detect no willingness to have an amnesty, leaving victims with no justice.

    It’s not in my opinion something that would gain support in a referendum.

    If anything, the voices of victims, all of them, are being heard now more than ever.

    And I am not unhappy about that. We ignored them long enough.

  • Neil


    they may not have the cajones to say they want an amnesty, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want one. If it were put to the public it’s worth bearing in mind that the vastest majority of people here are not victims. We have a lot of young people who know very little about the old days, and even if you said there were 10 victims per casualty (which would be an over estimation on most criteria applied to being a victim) that’s 35,000 people. I make that about 2% of the population.

    Supporting the victims is the common sense, human default position. Faced with a choice of moving on however I think it would be a mistake to assume that there would be overwhelming support for stagnation and a festering society for the next 30 years or so for the sake of very few and dwindling numbers of prosecutions while the remaining actors shuffled off this mortal coil. Sooner or later it comes down to the needs of the many, understandably distateful to a lot of people but the 98% of society might decide to act in their own interests instead of the justified interests of the 2%, and that means one more slap in the face for victims.


    “We will have to disagree. I detect no willingness to have an amnesty, leaving victims with no justice.”

    1. In your opinion does the Dup want an amnesty for British, soldiers UDR and RUC who have been guilty of unlawful activity during the troubles or does it want them prosecuted?

    2. In your opinion does Sinn Fein want an amnesty for IRA volunteers who have been guilty of unlawful activity during the troubles or does it want them prosecuted?

    3. What justice for victims has resulted from the absence of an amnesty in the last 16 years?

    4. What justice for victims is likely to result from the absence of an amnesty in the next 16 years?

    5.Drawing on your responses to Questions 3 and 4, how will the absence of an amnesty ensure justice for victims in the future?

  • Zig70

    The wars not over. Time for another round. I support drawing a line under the 70-90s battle, just as we have drawn a line under the 50-60s border campaign. But a TV debate and vote would just be part of the noughties cold war. There is a line drawn under unsolved crimes day and daily. It’s done quietly with no fuss by normal life taking over.

  • aquifer

    These crimes were done by people dedicated to avoiding prosecution, so for every successful conviction there will be twenty or more who get away with murder.

    I’d rather let their maker judge them.

    The living need hospital beds and schools more than these people need expensive lawyers.

  • Charles_Gould


    Don’t think those parties want general amnesties… Which is what I’m talking about.

    There have been a number of cases over the years where people have been charged with offenses. I don’t think the public want to stop that process when it’s possible.

  • Charles_Gould

    To those saying that those unaffected by troubles want to put a line under the past, that’s something I disagree with. My sense is that the victims are now getting a space and audience that was denied them previously when we thought them unhelpful to moving on. Now I think that their story is key to understanding how to lay a proper foundation.

  • derrydave

    My sense is quite different Charles – my sense is that victims are now being wheeled out to be used for political reasons by certain parties who will then drop them like a stone when they’ve got all the political capital possible out of them. No happy endings, no prosecutions and convictions – just political manouvering, which will ultimately prove to be disillusioning for the victims in question.

    An Amnesty I believe is the only way to go – we spend way too much time and energy looking backwards and not enough looking forwards – to no real end. It is of course very unlikely to ever happen however as the merest hint of something like this will only result in more political manourvering by all the parties involved – there’s votes to be had in scaremongering and working up the electorate into a frenzy, and that’s all that counts in this bitter little statelet !

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Sadly quite true.

    I’m undecided about this one; in practical terms what justice is there at the moment?

    It also seems that if something is ‘too hot’ then the SoS can kybosh the inquiry in question.

    If every case was reopened and thoroughly examined it would be years before anything comes to fruition (if at all)

    By that time many victims will have passed on.

    Plus unfavourable verdicts will be appealed or have some sort of political hissy fit thrown in their direction to undermine them, the latest episode of Get Gerry has hinted at such.

    If the threat of prosecution is removed then people might be more forthcoming with the truth.

    Then potentially there might be at least some sort of closure for some victims.

    Who knows?

    In both scenarios there will be a number of saddened, shattered or indignant people.

    Our politicians do use the victims as weapons of mass distraction and as you say for political capital.

  • Brian Walker

    A good spread of arguments here. It’s true that support for amnesty is thin on the ground. Some of it is about principle, both blind and informed; some of it is about parties not wanting to let the other side off the hook. Quite a lot of it refuses to admit the extent of de facto amnesty already. How many prosecutions for pre- 1998 offences have been brought in 16 years? The big problem of amnesty by stealth is that it is not even handed and is therefore unjust and unfair and feeds charges of selective and politically motivated justice, which is not justice at all.

    To make progress on the truth and justice issues, more transparency and an assessment of available evidence are necessary. I can’t see why in their own interests the parties can’t agree on the Haass proposals for a new independent Historical Enquiries Unit to decide finally whether there was any hope of fresh convictions or not. Once cases have been closed, the information could be made available to relatives and victims, as happens with the HET already. Such a body should also examine the case against further inquiries. These procedures should also dispose of the rival charges of selective justice. After all that, the people might be better informed about whether to wipe the slate clean or not. This process could take a long time.

    Rea and Masefield are reflecting the view of many professionals that we’ve reached the point of decision already without going round the course once more. Their article may be an attempt to jerk the parties into reality rather than a wholly literal proposal. Either way, the public will want to hear much more about the arguments including the extent of “secret deals” and why the British government are refusing further inquiries. Perhaps then, the politicians would start educating the wider public in the fact that the well of justice had tried up and decide, or agree to let the people decide.

    Whose referendum it would be is fraught with difficulty. It would have to be either at the Assembly’s initiative by cross community consent or in effect by the two Governments with the Assembly’s consent. Either option would require special legislation. Quite a minefield.

  • Charles_Gould

    Victims are actually at their best when they make their point themselves, and they can be very uncomfortable for politicians, as they should be. I believe that there is no mood for amnesty as a concept, that this attitude would harden in a referendum, and that public sympathy for all victims, and interest in their stories is growing. We do need to get justice where possible and we do have to accept this will take time and money. That is the best foundation for a future that accepts that victims can’t be brushed aside for the sake of convenience, as we did in 1998. My sense is that we are now more concerned about victims issues than ever before and that to violate the public mood on that would damage the belief in the system and be a bad thing for future stability. We have to do right and take whatever pain on all sides.

  • I dont know if Charles Gould is right (8.42am) about the reasons why victims SEEM to be higher profile.
    They remain the Elephant in the Room. They were promised in 1998 that something would be done…..and while some other issues around the Good Friday Agreement are still not done….Victims are perhaps unique because lip service has been paid to them …but the side deals (OTR, HET, de facto amnesty for Security Forces and IRA and the toleration of levels of violence….actually means that Victims were totally lied to.
    The British, Sinn fein and Loyalist politicians have all lost the right to speak for victims because of the deals they negotiated, benefitted from or chose not to be aware of.

    There is no groundswell of public opinion for a General Amnesty.
    And no politician can realistically call for one.
    Which is why the calls for an Amnesty seem to be from people on the edges of politics rather than those “inside politics”
    There is of course a case (a bad one politically, a good one historically) to be made for an Amnesty….but what political party is actually going to call for one.
    Its a vote loser…it might well be practical….it might well tie up loose ends but it lacks principle.
    Of course Principle can be ….bought.
    People have been “bought off” all thru the post 1998 period.
    Generous pensions.
    Generous “community grants”
    And there are certainly enough projects involving victims.
    I am not entirely sure that those of us who saw and experienced things in the years before injury, trauma and human rights violations before solicitors told us there was a price tag attached….would be happy with yet more compensation for victims.

    Yet for any political party to argue for an Amnesty means they would have to be sure that THEIR victims were on board.
    For all political parties to argue for an Amnesty means that ALL Victims are on board.
    That means more than a great big Memorial….it means money for victims.
    And I dont think the electorate are so altruistic as to want to see some people in our society be compensated (in some cases …again).
    To get a YES vote means we all have to benefit…lets be frank here…financially.

    I put this proposal seriously.
    If the Troubles lasted 30 years, I was an adult for 29 years and a child for one year.
    If I was offered £100 for every adult year and £50 for every child year…Id get £2950. Id take it. Mrs FJH would be entitled to less. My two sons would get a little.
    You can do your own calculation.
    Its a crude calculation that Eames-Bradley got wrong.
    Compensate EVERYONE….and the Establishment gets its Amnesty.

  • Reader

    fitzjameshorse1745 : it means money for victims.
    And I dont think the electorate are so altruistic as to want to see some people in our society be compensated (in some cases …again).

    As you pointed out, many victims have already been compensated for their loss or suffering. So what it means is that (hypothetical) Amnesty Compensation is simply to compensate people for the final end to their chances of seeing the guilty punished.
    That moves some people out of the ‘victim’ category in this case – for instance the loyalist blast bomber who blew off his own fingers loses nothing with an amnesty, and need not get any compensation.

  • Charles_Gould

    I am not a great believer in the financial proposals – they seem to muddy the water. There is the sense that we find it cheaper to give money to shut them up. That’s not to do right for victims, that is to buy their silence.

    The troubles were so fast and intense that there were many victims that are forgotten – and then they come out of the woodwork for some reason and their story is a revelation – we put a human face and name to the atrocity. When we hear their story, and feel compassion, something grows in us – I feel this personally. And if they are articulate honest and reasonable, they speak with a power that no politician can match. It can be incredibly moving. Remember the UTV news studio discussion with the Shankill Protestant victim and tit-for-tat Catholic victim who hugged each other spontaneously? There was something so human, which told us something about our society and the costs that have been secretly borne for so long – and brushed aside for convenience’s sake.

    Letting right be done for victims requires more attention and focus on the stories of the victims, and more respect and recognition of the price they paid. And more justice and truth. To achieve this by an amnesty or a payoff is not to do the right thing for the victims – each is too convenient and too cheap and avoids the thorny issues – whether the victim is one of state loyalist or republican paramilitary activity.

  • Cant disagree with that.
    Except it wont happen. There is no Will.
    Government has been throwing money at victims for years.
    The irony is that many ordinary people who endured the Troubles are cynical.
    Like I have saiid…many real victims of the Troubles were short-changed in terms of compensation.
    And in 2014 we are much more “savvy”.
    With a person quite properly getting £45,000 for homophobic abuse today….how much is it actually worth in real terms to have been near the Abercorn, seen Bloody Friday, or witnessed the Ballymurphy Massacre.
    Or been routinely called a “Fen— bast—” from the back of a British saracen or a RUC Land Rover. Or had to sell your farm in Fermanagh or South Armagh too cheaply.
    Arguably some people in the Gold Coast at Crawfordsburn escaped the Troubles. But most people were impacted in some way….it was just about degrees.
    Paying big compensation to 4,000 families might antagonise some.
    Giving me £2,900 might just persuade me to close the Victims issue and accept an Amnesty.

  • BarneyT

    Well go round and round on this forever. Case after case…and where the victims don’t get the enquiry they need they will continue to pursue the civil route. Perhuaps the threat of civil action my focus minds but I suspect nothing much will manifest and we’ll still be left with no answers and a lot of pain. I’m a relative of a troubles killing and I’ve grown up with this mess but we needt to take the brave step towards an amnesty perhaps even rbeyond 98. I understand how hard this ma but it needs

  • BarneyT

    Well go round and round on this forever. Case after case…and where the victims don’t get the enquiry they need they will continue to pursue the civil route. Perhuaps the threat of civil action my focus minds but I suspect nothing much will manifest and we’ll still be left with no answers and a lot of pain. I’m a relative of a troubles killing and I’ve grown up with this mess but we needt to take the brave step towards an amnesty perhaps even beyond 98 for all involved. I understand how hard this will be.

  • BarneyT

    Excuse double posting but character limit and subsequent edit invoked unwanted submission