Tom Kelly on why the statute of limitations cannot be applied one-sidedly. In any case, he says, the provisions of the Belfast Agreement for a two-year sentence is an important mark of justice, which delineates the difference between innocent and guilty:
The IRA didn’t act in the name of the Irish people and it justified its campaign with the most tenuous of links to an insurrection tradition from a different era.
As a people, we were better at writing romantic laments about the heroic failures of war than waging it.
Likewise, the terrorists in the UDA and the UVF, (who are still quite active), have never had the backing of the majority of the unionist community, despite a predilection for many mainstream unionists to share public platforms with them.
The majority of Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists never had any desire to see bombings, shootings or punishment beatings carried out in their name.
That’s not to say there wasn’t deep-rooted mistrust and sectarianism towards and within each community. But when it came to violence, the worst accusation that could be levelled against all was that of passive ambivalence.
Whilst there was no moral or legal basis for the maintenance of any form of terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland, there is clear evidence that the British government and their security officials lost their moral compass not long into the Northern Ireland conflict.
Infiltrating terrorist organisations for intelligence purposes is one thing but permitting and, in some cases, colluding or even carrying out murder is simply wrong.
No one will ever be held accountable for these actions any more than the leadership of the IRA will be. The tide is definitely out on the truth ever emerging.
And let’s face it, this suits Sinn Féin’s new leadership as much as it does certain unionists and government ministers.
Like it or lump it, those who orchestrated terrorism – state-sponsored or paramilitary – will never face justice. Generals, securocrats and consigliere rarely do.
But the foot soldiers that made up the ranks of these organisations are more likely to see the sword of justice hang over them like a shadow for the rest of their lives.
That is why we see some individual former members of the IRA being targeted as well as some former British soldiers.
At one level justice should follow wherever the evidence of wrongdoing takes it, yet given that no senior figures from the leadership of paramilitary organisations or the British government will ever reach a courtroom, it seems somewhat unfair to pursue the cannon fodder.
The prime minister’s recent intervention on the legacy issues is mistaken and driven by a prejudiced unionist perspective that believes no one in a uniform can have carried out a criminal act during the conflict.
If it sounds vaguely familiar to a claim by the former Sinn Féin leader about militant republicans and criminality – it is.
But, he concludes:
…let’s be honest, there’s not a tissue paper between the government and the unionist concept of a statute of limitations against prosecution and an amnesty, except that they want the former to apply to soldiers or police accused of criminal acts and not IRA members.
To institute a statute of limitations would fly in the face of the Good Friday Agreement as provision for a maximum two sentence was included for anyone convicted of terrorist activities if new evidence was produced after 1998.
Would it not be now preferable to apply the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to both former police and soldiers who acted illegally rather than to protect wrongdoing by these agents of the state?
Two years is better justice than none and a uniform should be no protection from prosecution for illegal acts.
Interestingly, according to Colonel Richard Kemp, there are no old soldiers running around with letters of comfort [an interesting concept that – Ed] in their back pocket:
LISTEN: Former army chief's fury over ex-soldier Troubles prosecutions. @COLRICHARDKEMP says he'll return his officer's Commission in protest – he spoke to @vinnybelfast this morning https://t.co/dGBZGzsdqc pic.twitter.com/TscwJO3OMg
— Stephen Nolan (@StephenNolan) May 14, 2018
It may be that, politically, it is less messy to prosecute a few old soldiers than to sweep up hundreds in what must be in the region of a thousand ‘unsolved’ murders. But perhaps Northern Ireland could probably use a more widely felt fear of the law?
To concentrate minds.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty