Northern Ireland’s justice system weathers the storms of controversy in the continuing vacuum from government

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan 

Still no word of a decision on the Legacy Bill and no surprise there either. The justice system ploughs on with handling legacy cases against a background of continuing controversy.  The Daily Telegraph’s campaign against former soldiers having to face trial continues, with the  “disgusted” reaction by appellant  78 year old Dennis Hutchings  to the Supreme Court’s decision that he will face trial by a judge alone. The real objection, held by a strong lobby headed by Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and much of the Conservative  and military establishments,  is to former soldiers having to face trial at all. The Telegraph’s figures of soldiers potentially liable varies from two hundred to “as many as a thousand.”

In the heightened language of its reporting, the paper supports the claim shared by the Newsletter in their “legacy scandal” campaign, of  general bias against the security forces.  The intro below to a story of three years ago is  questionable even though veterans’ eligibility for the prisoners’ early release scheme hasn’t been tested.  The scheme is in any case viewed with contempt  over the dreaded  “equivalence “ factor,  putting veterans  on an equal footing with terrorists at best, if not in a more exposed position.

British troops convicted of historic killings in Northern Ireland face spending the rest of their lives in jail – even though terrorists jailed for murder during the Troubles will serve just two years, The Telegraph can disclose… The decision to plough on with the investigation was met with fury last night especially given the fact that many terrorists involved in murders in the province were granted pardons under the Good Friday Agreement...

The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Legacy Investigation Branch will look at all 238 fatal incidents in which 302 people, many of them terrorists, died. Because the majority of the deaths involved shootings where more than one soldier opened fire, the probe is expected to include up to 1,000 former troops… According to The Sun, the investigation is expected to last for many years and will cost tens of millions of pounds.

Don’t forget  “the royal prerogatives of mercy” a.ka. royal pardons. You might be forgiven for never having heard of them until 2016.  They were one of those shadowy concessions for the sake of peace, like those lesser favours the OTR “letters of assurance”   informing  fugitives  they weren’t wanted by the police – and definitely not an amnesty, certainly not. But somehow not broadcast until exposed by an error of process that set successor governments  digging in the files…

More than 350 royal pardons have been issued in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years, the Government disclosed  three years ago.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has revealed that the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (RPM) was exercised in the province on at least 365 occasions between 1979 and 2002. But the true total may well be higher as the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has been unable to find the records for the 10 year period from 1987 to 1997. The usual reason given if that the pardons were issued in exchange for important information. Mrs Villiers added that the records indicated that there were no cases of pardons being granted after 2002.

Lewis Cherry, a specialist military lawyer who has defended hundreds of soldiers in Northern Ireland, said the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 had only ever applied to terrorists, convicted of atrocities during the Troubles. Hundreds of paramilitaries had sentences commuted as a result of the peace deal, pushed through by Tony Blair.  Mr Cherry said: “This act has only ever been applied to terrorists. That is what it was designed for.

Perhaps so, but the Model Bill Team  for  the draft Legacy Bill headed by Prof Kieran McEvoy  found no legal reasons why the Act should not apply to security forces veterans.

The Northern Ireland police federation takes the opposite view from amnesty campaigners in England. They’re against it for  army and police veterans forces because in the end, it would let terrorists off the hook.

There in a nutshell is the dilemma.

The PSNI remain on the defensive over the quashing of the search warrants against the  two Loughinisland  journalists.

Their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the UVF killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV in 1994.

The priority given to the potential threat against an alleged suspect identified in an allegedly leaked or stolen document over investigation the murders themselves  still has to be explained and inevitably feeds the suspicions of police cover up and claims of a police state.  The reason given in earlier court hearings is that the identification of  the suspect Ronnie Hawthorn  constituted a threat to his life and the police Ombudsman and his staff  who facilitated the journalists with information and on camera appearances were equally at fault. This may be an arguable point but if it’s ever to become grudgingly accepted, it would need to be followed up by long overdue and vigorous investigation into the murders.

As the Ballymurphy inquest continues to make waves, the Irish News reports that the Justice Department plans to release £55 million over six years to deal with 52 legacy inquests involving 93 deaths. It isn’t clear from the report that the funds denied by Arlene Foster as first minister have now been released by civil servants.