The government need to come clean urgently on their bungled proposal for a security forces amnesty

After Sinn Fein held their meeting with Theresa May this afternoon,  Gerry Adams diverted from the apparent failure to make progress on restoring Stormont with a genuine issue:

a potential amnesty from prosecution for security force members who served in the Troubles is to be floated by the British government.

The Irish News carries the fullest version of the story by the PA.  What’s being floated is a statute of limitations in a fundamental and unilateral amendment to the 2014  Stormont House Agreement ( how can you have an “agreement” which is altered  by only one party?), so far without updated detail and a consultation which has yet to begin.

Concerns however are valid as this was precisely what the Commons Defence Select Committee proposed just before the last Westminster general election accompanied by approving noises from James Brokenshire.  This was one of the moves Gerry Adams pounced on to refuse to recognise the Secretary of State as an impartial mediator in the Stormont stand –off. Today’s leak – if that’s what it is – is unlikely to improve his standing with Sinn Fein.

By failing to come clean immediately on the scope of the consultation, the government are bungling the issue again, despite having months if not years to prepare for  this most sensitive of proposals.

The Defence Committee seemed to believe that an amnesty for the security forces would be matched by truth recovery under privilege  i.e.  confessions by former paramiltaries . Amnesty  would not be appropriate for them as they already have the concession – which  the government and many MPs  seem to believe  does not apply to the security forces – of a maximum  two year sentence under the GFA, under the early release scheme of the Northern Ireland Sentences  Act.

But you do not correct an imbalance by creating another one – and one moreover which has no chance of winning cross community consent.

In any case the widespread belief of an imbalance seems be wrong. As has been explained in Eamonn Mallie’s blog,

leading legal authority Kieran McEvoy  argued in his evidence to that committee, there is nothing in the legislation that would prevent it applying to any member of the security forces if they were to be convicted of a scheduled offence.

The Sentence Commissioners were empowered to grant releases so long as the prisoner was not a supporter of a specified (i.e. not on ceasefire) organisation, was not likely to become a supporter of such an organisation or to ‘engage in terrorism’ if released and, if a lifer, that they would not be a danger to the public.

There is nothing there that would exclude a soldier or police officer and nothing that would exclude them if they were today convicted of a scheduled offence committed before the Agreement.

In fact, there were two soldiers in prison at the time and they did apply to the Sentence Commissioners for early release.

These were Guardsmen Fisher and Wright who were in prison for the murder of Peter McBride in North Belfast.

In the event, they were released on life licence directly by the then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.

.The spokesman from the Northern Ireland Office said: “The secretary of state believes that the next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions would work in practice. A public consultation would provide everyone with an interest the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues.

“The Government believes that the Stormont House Agreement proposals represent the best means of addressing Northern Ireland’s past in ways that will be fair, balanced and proportionate.

“In the spirit of open and meaningful consultation, it is right that the government listens to all views.

“The consultation has not been launched at this stage, but the government will be engaging with stakeholders in advance.

We are obliged to move forward so that victims and survivors are able to get the progress they have been seeking for such a long time.

“The best way to do that is following the formation of an Executive, but if that does not prove possible we do need to get on with this.”

Amnesty International said the British government “must not legislate for impunity” through a statute of limitations.

Rather than a move to tempt SF back, this  looks like another piece of basic government bungling which classically divides SF and the DUP and can only damage further the prospects of a return to Stormont. The best that can come out  of it is if it prompts  meaningful debate on a eventual drawing of a line to allow eventual disclosure of  meaningful parts of the the written and verbal records, without fear of prosecution.

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  • mickfealty

    One, does anyone think this has any defensible legal basis. Two, it’s remarkably similar to the Adams defence:

  • Brian Walker

    But of course the ” Ballymurphy massacre” is about an inquest not a trial..

  • 05OCT68

    British state admission that security forces where on a par with illegal organisations, British state admission that security forces share the same moral equivalency as illegal organisations. If this comes to pass be prepared for challenges to convictions of Loyalist’s & Republicans who where charged, convicted & incarcerated for “Troubles” related crimes prior to the GFA. Mrs Windsor will spend her remaining time on earth signing pardons. The law of unintended consequences.

  • mickfealty

    The Adams defence was that letter revealed in Justice Sweeney’s search, which was Blair’s reply to Adams who had asked for a general amnesty…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    More clueless incompetence from the Tories. They disgrace the country and need to be gone.

  • Zig70

    I doubt it was clueless. I don’t have a problem with an amnesty. Let’s face it, nobody is going to jail anyway. I do have a problem with being played by governments and political parties.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    they are trying to play you which is pointless and they are doing it very badly to boot. Sorry it is clueless of them, they are such lightweights

  • 05OCT68

    But people did go to jail.

  • Granni Trixie

    Is there not a two year upper limit for troubles related crimes?

  • Neiltoo

    Assuming they ‘go’ do you really think Corbyn and co. will be better for N. Ireland?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    sadly no. We have dire choices as a country just now.

  • 05OCT68

    Two years? Persons served more than 15 years for offences that now will be covered by an amnesty for security forces/state terrorists (Theresa has made the moral equivalence). Kill a soldier, go to jail serve 15 to 20 years have a record as a murderer. Kill a civilian, go home live a long & happy life, get a medal, pension & an amnesty for your crime. If any person thinks that Brexit, RHI or an ILA is divisive, this will elevate divisiveness to a level not seen, a line that will not be crossed.

  • 05OCT68

    In what way could Labour be worse?

  • 05OCT68

    Fu)k Gerry Adams & his amnesty unless it includes a pardon, expunging of all criminal records & a live apology from HRH for security force terrorist activity. Come to think of it fu(k the pardon, a pardon from the commander in chief of admitted criminals, who needs it.

  • mickfealty

    Just saying…

  • Barneyt

    Compounded by the fact the notion of country leaves us baffled and confused 🙂

  • Barneyt

    If someone storms into your house and takes control and ownership of it, and overtime retreats to the kitchen, do you still treat those that reclaimed the hall, sitting rooms and sleeping quarters the same as those who took the house in the first place and still control the place where we drink and make the food?

  • Granni Trixie

    1.The majority voted for the GFA. As part of that agreement people got out of jail, even those who had murdered and it was agreed that should people come to the courts for troubles related offences the maximum they would serve would be two years. Morally suspect I know but it was agreed.
    2. The British government for their own reasons are re floating the idea of an amnesty for soldiers. But from my limited legal knowledge without it being extended to non state actors, it is open to legal challenge likely to succeed. So it’s not going to,happen.

    What’s needed ofcourse is a comprehensive approach to the past not the piecemeal drag it out method we are living through. But ofcourse SF has other priorities don’t they?

  • Jim M

    It disturbs me that the current UK government can be so blind as to how this kind of suggestion will play in Northern Ireland. You wonder who came up with this and what went through their heads.

  • Jim M

    These kind of analogies are grossly distorting and reductionist. Even if they weren’t, those who reclaimed most of the house would be long dead.

  • Aodh Morrison

    To be fair the idea is included for ‘consultation’ only. Perhaps an item of ‘supply’ on foot of a ‘demand’ by other parliamentarians 😉 At least being in the public domain it can be roundly rubished.

    An amnesty is not acceptable – anyone suspected of a criminal act, where evidence merits it, must face prosecution. Too many pardons, ‘comfort letters’ and partisan political expediency have already tainted the legal process (most cooked up under the radar of public scrutiny).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Exactly. Political interference with criminal justice – in a flailing and unwise attempt to pacify certain elements with something to lose from the criminal justice process – is not the way. The comfort letters and secret deals has been a mess. People lose faith in the fairness and justice – which actually massively damages the body politic more generally – when these kind of grubby deals are done, or frankly even suggested.

    The whole process of Troubles truth and justice needs a massive re-boot and a clean broom. We need a single, comprehensive process above all, with transparency and clarity. Piecemeal side deals erode trust.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    well, it leaves *you* baffled and confused, Barney, but perhaps you weren’t paying attention on that score 🙂

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m confused … whose house?

  • 05OCT68

    Its the timing of this is also suspect, who benefits from raising the possibility of security force amnesty in the middle of protracted Stormont talks? Is it a sop to the backwoods men in the tory party or has the DUP come up with this? Are the DUP going to agree to an ILA in exchange for a security force amenesty?

  • 05OCT68

    You mean that NI residents have zero choice as to who leads the UK.

  • Ladas

    1. The law should never be perverted for political purposes. Anyone who committed crimes should be convicted, sentenced and required to serve those sentences. Terrorists [PIRA/INLA/UFF/UVF etc] and members of the Security Forces [SF].
    2. However, that is not the situation in Northern Ireland, convicted terrorists were released early, new convictions resulted in two year maximum sentences and extradition cases were dropped.
    3. OTR’s from one community, allied to one political party, received so-called ‘comfort letters’ distributed by that one party.
    4. I would much prefer the point 1 scenario to exist but it doesn’t. Therefore, I have no hesitation in supporting a ‘no jail’ provision for any Security Force personnel convicted of an offence committed whilst on duty and under discipline. It should never be forgotten that until relatively recently the political masters in Westminster refused to provide any operational or legal framework to guide the SF in relation to agents etc. Rules devised to combat the Kray Twins weren’t fit for purpose against PIRA et al.
    5. Terrorists were given special treatment under the so-called GFA, ministers have never been held to account for criminal negligence, so a ‘no jail’ provision for SF personnel is in terms of contemporary NI only right and proper. I oppose a blanket amnesty as so few SF personnel will ever have broken the law. A blanket amnesty would play in to the hands of Sinn Fein. However, the current status quo is unacceptable. By the way the Belfast Telegraph is so wrong in denying biased justice. The PSNI have admitted that the PPS can direct them to prioritise cases and I am unaware that cases so designated reflect the death and disfigurement statistics of the Troubles.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    2 year max tariff only applies to convicted paramilitaries.

  • WindsorRocker

    A comprehensive statute of limitations would be less likely to inflame opinion in just one specific section of society and wouldn’t play as bad outside NI.

    The current situation is that new evidence is the trigger.
    Sometimes that is with the advances in DNA but most of the time it is new witness statements from people who previously didn’t cooperate with the authorities and those tend to be from people who were opposed to cooperating or felt afraid to do so at the time and that skews the demographic to those opposed to the state forces.

    Those who supported the state or at least felt the state was furthering their interests in pursuing investigations during the troubles (killings by republicans, some killings by loyalists) have already come forward, offered their help and those cases were dealt with years ago although not successfully in so many cases.

    Had the first group of people cooperated at the time (and we can debate ad nauseam why they didn’t), then these soldier/police prosecutions in the news agenda would have been interspersed with daily terrorist attacks, terrorist prosecutions and these isolated incidents would have been seen for what they were, isolated in comparison to vicious terrorist campaigns.

    So whilst we now enjoy a relatively far more peaceful society these incidents assume a disproportionate profile in the public consciousness.

    Despite the various sweetners given to terrorist groups over the last 20 years, I think for this proposal to have any sort of legal standing or legitimacy and not be seen as a political reaction, it needs to be across the board for all citizens who may have committed crimes whether they be terrorists or servants of the crown who overstepped the mark of their duties.

    The burden of investigating the past legally is dragging down the current generation of the wider justice system and a general statute of limitations would not legally be an amnesty but it would essentially say that what public interest is served by prosecuting people now, engaging huge public resources and letting those with agendas exploit individual cases to further their own agenda of rewriting history.

  • WindsorRocker

    No, if anything it can be taken as an admission that individuals within the state forces made decisions which could now be judged as criminal. Of course that was a small percentage of state forces whereas every individual who joined paramilitary organisations made decisions that were criminal.

  • Granni Trixie

    You know, I’m not sure. I was assuming it applied to anyone whose crime could be defined as “troubles related” but you could be making a crucial differentiation which in a way privileges a “convicted paramilitary”. I will check this out.

  • Granni Trixie

    Leaving aside the case of crime and a very young person, why should a record be expunged? I thought the IRA were proud of what they did?

  • NotNowJohnny

    The British have a history of political interference in criminal justice in Ireland. Indeed the British government has a long history of granting amnesties to Irish rebels/revolutionaries/terrorists/freedom fighters (choose whatever term aligns with your view). And there is no rational reason why their approach to amnesties for criminal acts that happen in Ireland should be any different today than it was previously. The thing is that while some may view such violations of the law in Ireland as purely criminal matters, the British government generally doesn’t. For the British government it is a political issue and while they many be quick to lock people up they’re generally quite happy to let them out again given that this is Ireland and not Great Britain. That’s why prisoners here had political status and why they finally regained the privileges associated with political status after they’d been withdrawn despite Mrs Thatchers best efforts. Northern Ireland may be part of the UK but to the British government it is part of Ireland rather than Great Britain and different rules apply. Believing Northern Ireland to be as British as Finchley and will be treated as such is idealism at it best.

  • Nap McCourt

    After a dirty war we are seeing the outworking of a dirty peace.
    Is it not evident that the main protagonists have only got self interests at heart?
    British Govt want amnesty and continuous glorification for their Army
    SF want and got OTR letters for their Army. They have also now commenced the same agenda for those perpetrators in the ROI (Gerry Adams and his Tom Oliver statement)
    Loyalists via DUP getting money via SIF for their Army.
    Meanwhile Joe Bloggs has to put up with the faux arguments over RHI, ILA, flags, bonfires, ulster Scot’s.
    It is only recently that I realised that the illusion being peddled by both extremes hides an undercurrent where neither the British Govt, SF, DUP and Loyalists do not give a toss about those who kept their head down, rode the gauntlet, raised our families and didn’t feel or promote any animosity against our neighbours during the troubles.

  • Barneyt

    Sometimes simple analogies help illustrate just how ludocrous the situation is. Many choose to rewrite history with regard to Ireland and how and why Nothern Ireland was formed. It was direct manipulation. John Taylor recently talked of expanding Norhern Ireland and bringing Donegal into the picture. Now, had NI been formed strategically, rather than on religious and grounds of allegiance, Donegal and the northwest coast would have been to this day, under British control. Perhaps they might have held on to the enture ulster rather than two thirds that they did.

    My house analogy is appropropriate I think, particularly if you factor in Brexit. The British houses can leave and that is their choice, however they insist that the Irish home remains broken and disfunctional. In such an event the houses of England, Scotland and Wales will remain intact, but taking our kitchen along with them ensures the house over here can never work and function properly.

    Now I agree I may be taking this analogy a tad far, but its supports a point.

  • Barneyt

    I’ve ready many an impressive post from you MU so I seriously doubt you are confused.

  • 05OCT68

    Already with the prevarication. In an earlier comment I mentioned Loyalist & Republicans, but of course to some the IRA where the only terrorist organisation in Ireland. Thankfully Theresa May has corrected that notion. Now weather former terrorists are proud of their actions or not, why should they be lumbered with a criminal record, when security force criminals continue to be lauded for their actions & their military service? What’s been forgotten is a general amnesty points the finger of suspicion on every person that served the security forces in NI.

  • Granni Trixie

    Enough whataboutery. Look, I believe that prisoners of any kind should be able to make a fresh start but you appear to be saying that politcial prisoners ought not to have any record because they are ‘special’. In practical terms for example how would you reconcile safeguarding duties and employing people in jail for say murder or other serious crimes? We would all like to wipe the skate clean but it is especially difficult when people are in denial of what they have done.