A tabloid storm blown up by the Sun and the Mail with the Daily Telegraph in tow has been set off to save hundreds, perhaps thousands of “our boys” – the soldiers who served in the Troubles – from the “ witch hunt” of being singled out as a class for prosecution as a result of Army action in the Troubles. The surge probably owes more to the establishment campaign against prosecutions over Iraq – one case now being the subject of a second appeal. But it doesn’t take much to stir up our own hornets’ nest.
A familiar cast is being wheeled out – Ulster’s finest, Colonel Tim, the soldier’s champion and the commentator Douglas Murray who contrasts the alleged treatment of the Army with the alleged amnesty for the IRA that he claims was the On-The –Runs system.
Added later.. The Daily Telegraph’s stronger point is that soldiers and police officers don’t benefit from the accelerated release scheme for paramilitaries and the two year maximum imposed thereafter for pre-1998 Troubles offences.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, terrorists on either side of the divide need serve only two years in jail, including time spent on remand, if convicted of a terrorist offence, including murder. But the act of parliament, signed in 1998, that gives leniency to terrorists does not apply to soldiers or police officers.
Col Richard Kemp, a retired Army officer who served eight tours in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, said the injustice was the latest example of the Government favouring terrorists over troops.
All terribly plausible no doubt for the massed ranks of armchair warriors in Britain. But hard to believe, although untested, that any sentences imposed on soldiers would not reflect the short sentences imposed on paramilitaries since 1998 for offences committed before that date.
The basis of the complaints is that there should be bias – but in the Army’s favour; the argument being that equal treatment between soldiers defending the state and the paramilitaries seeking to overthrow it is intolerable. But that is contrary to the principles of justice. And so a dialogue of the deaf continues.
Via the Guardian and other sources the PSNI issued a pained corrective .
There is no new single probe or bespoke inquiry into deaths attributed to the British army,” said assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton, head of the PSNI’s legacy and justice department. “All Troubles-related deaths will be reviewed by LIB using the case sequencing model, which does not prioritise military cases. This is not a new decision.
As the Guardian report states, the genesis of the story lies in report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) which found that troops and police officers could face murder or manslaughter charges for killings that occurred when they were on duty.
The report criticised the LIB’s predecessor, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), for failing to treat killings attributed to British troops in the same way as those believed to have been carried out by paramilitary forces. After the report, PSNI announced it would revisit all military-related cases “to ensure the quality of the review reached the required standard”.
In 2014, the LIB took over responsibility for investigating the 3,200 homicides that took place during the Troubles. Rather than treating cases chronologically, the LIB looks at forensic opportunities, available witnesses and other investigative material when deciding which cases to tackle first, a spokeswoman for the PSNI explained. The branch’s workload includes 238 incidents attributed to British troops, the spokeswoman confirmed.
This week officers in the LIB passed a report to the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to decide whether former members of the Parachute Regiment should be prosecuted over the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings, in which 14 activists were shot. The murder investigation started in 2012 following a public inquiry that found the killings were unjustifiable.
The futility of the Bloody Sunday police inquiry – like the interrogation of Gerry Adams over the disappeared – is what you end up with when you have the continuing failure to deal with the Troubles legacy since the Haass-O’Sullivan report.
One shudders at the reaction to whatever decision the DPP reaches over the Bloody Sunday file, after all that has gone before. Either way he is on a hiding to nothing and the result will reduce the healing impact of the Saville findings.
The scrapping of the HET led to the recommendations of Haaas- O’Sullivan report which was broadly incorporated into the sections on the past contained in Fresh Start which still await agreement a year later.
The poor old PSNI have been left bitterly complaining to shoulder a burden of the legacy that by now should either have been dropped or subject to a comprehensive review by the proposed Historic Investigations Unit.
A defensive government reply was carried by the Belfast Telegraph which tried to make a story out of little more than a rehash of the present deadlock and excuses over the continuing failure to set up the Unit .
Some families of more than 3,200 murder victims believe national security concerns could be used to prevent release of information held in official files. The Irish Government has said those harmed during the 30-year Troubles have been let down by the lack of progress.
A UK Government statement said: “This Government is committed to full and faithful implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, including the establishment of the new institutions to address the legacy of the past.”
It said the administration will continue to engage with victims’ groups, political parties and the Stormont Executive to build the necessary political consensus to get the Stormont House political agreement legacy institutions up and running.
“However, success or failure does not rest on the UK Government alone,” said the statement. “It will not hinge on a national security ‘veto’ which is a simplistic characterisation failing to recognise that the UK Government has agreed to disclose all relevant material it holds to the HIU.”
Critics would say that it is outrageous for the State to bargain over access to state files which could lead to justice. Others say that there will be no more significant disclosure without immunity for witnesses. “Political consensus” remains an illusion.
The Irish News condemns the DUP and Arlene Foster for refusing to fund inquests. This is just another obstacle that refutes the bland claims of the NIO that they’re doing all they can, etc., etc. For a start they could fund the inquests directly.
It is shameful that the PSNI remains vulnerable to unfair attack because of the prevarication of all parties, including the British government . Meanwhile dealing with the past remains a running sore – as comment on this post will shortly demonstrate.
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