The recently retired and very steady SDLP veteran MLA Alban Maginness who is also a qualified barrister has been given space to mount a measured criticism against secretary of state James Brokenshire in the Belfast Telegraph for his disastrous article in the Sunday Telegraph complaining that an apparent “imbalance” that has led to a “disproportionate” focus on criminal inquiries involving former soldiers.“I am clear the current system is not working and we are in danger of seeing the past rewritten,” wrote Brokenshire.
He is entitled to his opinion about a perceived imbalance in public comment. But is he accusing the Lord Chief Justice and the prosecutorial authorities of “ imbalance” too? As Alban points out the chief justice Sir Declan Morgan has already answered Brokenshire in terms. The DPP Barra Magrory had rejected a similar charge of bias against soldiers from a backbencher in December.
Brokenshire, by playing political footsie with the DUP, is frustrating the achievement of a formal structure for a legacy process, in particular the funding of Troubles-related inquests and ultimate relief for victims’ families.
In an unusually candid manner last week, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, in an address to the Victims and Survivors Forum in Belfast, made it abundantly clear that dealing with Troubles-related inquests by Government was a legal obligation – not simply a matter of Government policy. He went further and said that failure to do so could frustrate the rule of law.
The Lord Chief Justice bluntly stated: “I don’t see why wider political agreement should not be addressed now. All the victims and survivors need this issue to be grasped.”
The suspicion is that he has done nothing in order to appease the DUP, whose support might be required in a future tight vote in parliament.
The Irish News has reacted extensively to Brokenshire’s comments, Fionnuala O’Connor even insisting that the chances of Stormont’s restoration have been wrecked.
It was such bare-faced departure from the pretence to be above internal Northern Ireland politics that it surely confirmed the sense that Stormont2 Phase2 is a goner.
IT’S interesting that no one has accused our proconsul of deliberately or provocatively choosing almost exactly the forty-fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Derry, indeed the day the annual commemorative march took place, to publish his latest attack on victims of British state violence.
No one has made that accusation because no one would give him the credit of even being aware of the coincidence of the date he chose, when British soldiers killed most innocent victims in Ireland. You have to go back a long way to find a proconsul as directionless as the current specimen. Humphrey Atkins comes to mind but he’s thirty-five years ago and no one remembers him.
There are other similarities apart from ineptitude. Atkins was sent to do Lady Hacksaw’s precise bidding and not step a millimetre beyond. The same with our present incumbent who’s here obviously not for any political sparkle but as someone abjectly loyal to Theresa May for six years at the Home Office.
Even the usually measured and pro unionist Belfast Telegraph joined the criticism in an editorial headlined “Brokenshire playing a dangerous game.”
After the election, a new deal on the past, with all its implications, will feature high on the agenda as the parties get down to talks.
There is little doubt that the scene is being set for those discussions and we can only hope that Mr Brokenshire’s own comments prior to the election do not make his job even more onerous in brokering a political agreement when contact begins.
The explanation that he is courting DUP support in potentially tight Brexit votes is plausible but unlikely. The Conservatives have those votes in the bag unless he does something startling over the legacy or other matters. He didn’t need to offer them anything more.
More likely is that as Mrs May’s former understudy at the Home Office he is still more affected by a read- across to Northern Ireland of English Conservative anger about “our boys” being prosecuted over- officiously over Iraq than about our legacy on its merits. Coupling the two theatres of Iraq and Northern Ireland does no service to the cause of justice for soldiers who served in either.
Despite all his access to people and information it shows what a bubble he lives in and what his real priorities are. Theresa May herself has form in criticising the judiciary.
So, probably the most inept single intervention of 18 here- today gone- tomorrow secretaries of state in 44 years.
In Northern Ireland questions, an oblique reference, but no mistaking to what
Lady Hermon MP
In dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State will recognise how important it is that the Northern Ireland Office sends a very clear message that the rule of law prevails in Northern Ireland, so will he kindly take this opportunity to put on the record his full confidence in the independence and integrity of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and indeed the Director of Public Prosecutions?
I am very happy to do so in very clear and unequivocal terms: it is essential that we uphold the rule of law without fear or favour, and I absolutely support the work of the police and all those who are responsible for taking that forward and seeing that those who are committing the acts that we are discussing this morning are held to account and brought to justice.
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