One prosecution for Bloody Sunday. A moment to pause and reflect

Only one former paratrooper is to be charged in connection with the killings of civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland on Bloody Sunday in January 1972.

The decision was announced by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service after relatives of the 13 men, who died on one of the darkest days of the Troubles, had marched together through the streets of Derry where the victims fell

The Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, Stephen Herron, said: “It has been concluded that there is sufficient available evidence to prosecute one former soldier, Soldier F, for the murder of James Wray and William McKinney; and for the attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O’Donnell.

“In respect of the other 18 suspects, including 16 former soldiers and two alleged Official IRA members, it has been concluded that the available evidence is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.”
On their way to the City Hotel, where details of the charges were first revealed to the families, they paused to sing the civil rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’. The prosecution decisions were then formally announced by the PPS in Derry’s Guildhall.

The ex-serviceman has not been named and will only be identified by the letters used during the 12 year long Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday.

Reaction is awaited to limiting prosecution to one soldier. It may serve as a test case. Given that the veterans have always insisted that they fired on gunmen, a guilty plea to close down argument over the Saville evidence  is unlikely.

James Wray’s brother Liam said he was “very saddened for the other families” of those killed on Bloody Sunday.

“Their hearts must be broken,” he said. “It has been a sad day but the Wray family are relieved.”

He added: “There are a lot of sad and heart broken people today.”

In a more subdued reaction after the event than before it..

Defence (Secretary)  Gavin Williamson said the government would offer full legal support to Soldier F – including paying his legal costs and providing welfare support.

“We are indebted to those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland,” he said. “The welfare of our former service personnel is of the utmost importance.”

From the Daily Telegraph

The remaining soldiers could still face charges of perjury.

“The decisions announced today relate only to allegations of criminal conduct on Bloody Sunday itself,” the PPS said.

“Consideration will now be given to allegations of perjury in respect of those suspects reported to police.”

The Times

Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, said in the wake of the decision that how the Government deals with the ‘legacy’ of historic allegations needed urgently reviewing.

“Armed forces personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution,” he said.

Ministers are proposing a ten-year statute of limitations on prosecutions of military personnel. Any law, however, would be too late to protect the Bloody Sunday paratroopers from trial.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, has been pushing to introduce new legal mechanisms to restrict the ability for prosecutions to be brought against veterans over long-past events. He called the investigations into — and the threat of trials overshadowing — veterans an “absolute tragedy”.

Ministry of Defence sources have claimed this week that the Northern Ireland Office has been “blocking” the proposals mooted, which included a ten-year statute of limitations or a wider amnesty in the case of Northern Ireland

he former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon got in  his retaliation first, questioning the worthiness of  Northern Ireland prosecution authorities

MPs have raised concerns about the ability to try veterans, who are now in their sixties and seventies, fairly almost half a century after the event.

Sir Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, expressed dismay yesterday at the prospect of criminal charges. He said: “Any prosecution should require the UK attorney’s consent to enable him to consider a wider public interest, including the long passage of time since these incidents, and whether or not they have previously been investigated.”

Richard Benyon, a Conservative MP and former British Army officer, said: “If it is in the public interest to suspend prosecutions and release terrorists early from prison it cannot be in the public interest after nearly half a century to prosecute these people.”

Johnny Mercer, a Tory MP on the Commons defence select committee and a former Army captain, said on Twitter that the decision to prosecute Soldier F was “an abject failure to govern and legislate, on our watch as a Conservative administration”. He added: “When I speak of a chasm between those who serve and their political masters in this country, I mean this.”

Comment on the case itself should now be restricted as the DPP Stephen Herron  has explained.

As a prosecution will shortly be commenced, the PPS does not wish to say anything that might prejudice those proceedings and will not be making any further comment on this aspect of the case. The PPS would ask that there is no reporting, commentary or sharing of information on-line from other parties which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.

Summary of the decision on the PPS website here

The state of opinion on legacy cases as a whole is full of hypocrisy  division and confusion.  For some reconciliation can never be achieved by a relentless pursuit of justice; for others it won’t happen without it.  The Bloody Sunday prosecution is but one of a series of major legal events which heighten the profile of the chronically  unresolved issues of dealing with the past.

 

In a provocative piece in the Irish Times today Newton Emerson argues

The real divide on the subject..  cuts across traditional lines. The British government and Sinn Féin want an amnesty; other nationalists, unionists and the Irish Government do not.

Even in Northern Ireland this is poorly understood, as it suits various interests to confuse the issue. The British government wants an amnesty for its former soldiers because pursuing them for Troubles-era crimes is politically unacceptable in Britain. The blanket amnesty this would require would mean no justice for victims of terrorism. This is considered a price worth paying in Westminster and MPs across the political spectrum have little compunction in saying so.

Sinn Féin takes the same position on its former “soldiers”, although it is far more squeamish in admitting it, given the prominence of victims issues within nationalist communities. This is what sank the first attempt at an amnesty.

In 2001, the British government and Sinn Féin agreed a de facto amnesty at the Weston Park talks – the first major negotiation after the Belfast Agreement….

Emerson describes a bottom line  the parties haven’t yet reached. Time and again British governments have opposed an amnesty. It is the Commons Defence Select Committee standing up for soldiers that recommended one and  as an afterthought, went on to include everyone if that was the price that had to be paid. The Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson sympathized but greater caution followed as a decision on Bloody Sunday prosecutions approached. 

As Sinn Fein righteously pursue justice for victims they can hardly disapply it to  the their own perpetrators. Republicans have claimed  that if the state admitted significant wrongdoing  they would not be found wanting. But they can afford such statements, being secure in the knowledge that the state shelters under its own umbrella of national security. Only by discovering the limits of national security in accessing key state archives and lifting the threat of prosecution – as over the infamous Boston College tapes – can  these claims be put to the test.

Amnesty linked to final IRA arms decommissioning was indeed  proposed at Weston Park in 2002. In anticipation of a much later controversy it was to be applied to on-the -runs and –  wrongly as it turned out – seemed to be killed off. Whatever the legal ruling, the issuing of  “comfort letters” to no longer wanted fugitives was tantamount to an amnesty if a letter was mistakenly sent, as in the notorious case of John Downey whose trial for the Hyde park bombing murders of four soldiers collapsed in February 2014, provoking a storm of fury.   The controversy over on-the -runs would be a tea party if a blanket amnesty was introduced.

Another idea is not blanket amnesty but amnesty conditional on  disclosure. But why confess if the evidence doesn’t stack up or even exist?

So evidence is crucial; and here there is something to be resolved. Former chief constable Hugh Orde and Attorney General John Larkin are among those who’ve argued  that the evidence isn’t there in police records  to lead to many if any convictions ; and so a line should be drawn under prosecutions.  The  formidable former police Ombudsman  Nuala O’Loan is among those who dismiss this claim.  To Orde’s fury for one  – and he was no patsy for the old RUC – the Historic Enquiries Team  was wound up because it was  insufficiently  zealous in pursuit of security forces’ abuses.

Due process dependant on where the evidence takes it  may be blind to the concept of  “balance,” but of course  it exists in real life. The PSNI’s examples of balance, ranging from Gerry Adams holed up in a detention centre for a couple of days complaining of bad food to a decision to prosecute a defiant  paratroop veteran,   raise suspicions of politically motivated appeasement.

Before it begins work on cases the proposed independent Historic Inquiries Unit  should be tasked  to review the quality of evidence and assess the chances of obtaining fresh material, followed by the publication of the findings.  That would – as far as ever would be possible –  cut through the otherwise irresolvable controversy over  “balance”.