Brandon Lewis has tricked them into accepting a wrap on the Troubles

Maybe Brandon Lewis was being really clever.  His leak of a de facto amnesty united everybody against him for  gratuitously failing to  consult them and put victims first.  But he’s only done what he said he’d do a year ago. Therefore why the furtive briefing? It had all the cheek of John F Kennedy appointing his little brother US Attorney General.  “ I  opened the back door at midnight and whispered, “ It’s Bobby!”

Look again. Lewis has grudgingly united everybody in favour of something like a statute of limitations or similar curtailment  of due legal process.  The briefing will acquire substance in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May by explaining  how   “ a new independent body will conduct swift final examinations  of all unresolved deaths. ”  The new body, once described as  “a desk top exercise” will not have the powers nor the planned £150 million  budget of the long proposed  Historical Investigations Unit in  a deal which was painstakingly  negotiated  with the Irish government and  the local parties in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. You may surmise about the long delay.  The well trailed abandonment of the HIU  is at last being implemented in the apparently confident belief that any swift review of the files will show that the evidence in the majority of historic cases doesn’t exist.

Must we  take their word for that?  Here’s where the critics divide.

The UK government,  Conservative backbenchers and Ulster Unionists contradict themselves as they line up in support of  Army veterans. They claim historic cases like the Joe McCann  fatal shooting prove that the evidence isn’t strong enough to secure convictions from ” evidence gathered  in the so called tea and sandwiches interviews carried out by the  Royal Military Police.  On the other hand they claim the dice is loaded against soldiers because formal  records were  kept by the security forces, a procedure  which was  hardly part of IRA  and  UVF/ UDA  modus operandi. One argument too many?

Critics on the other side say that the claim of bias against the security forces is “fake news.” Prof Kieran McEvoy  the leader of the team that drew up a model Legacy Bill  points out that of 170 killings  by the Army from 1970 to 74,  63% of those killed were undisputedly unarmed, and only 12% were confirmed as possessing a weapon. No one was prosecuted for these deaths. Nor has there been an  Army witch hunt. Of 17 pending cases, 8 are republican, 4 loyalists and 6 soldiers in 5 cases.

McEvoy insists  that due legal process is essential  to remain in compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights  expressed in British law as the Human Rights Act and embedded in the Good Friday Agreement.    Successive British governments have been itching  to  reduce the impact of the  Convention and its Court, another troublesome foreign  entity they cordially dislike that tends to back the authority of judges over governments – in other words, them. So fa they haven’t found a way of doing so, with  Convention Rights embedded in the  Human Rights Act which is in turn entrenched in the international agreement that is  the GFA.

As things stand, much hangs on whether the proposed swift  process is human human rights compliant.  Government critics are unlikely to give up without a struggle.  Street shootings  are one thing, collusion however defined,  is another.

McEvoy  has listed :

  • The Glenanne gang (involving loyalists, UDR and RUC officers) committed over 120 murders.
  • The Police Ombudsman investigations into Operation Ballast involved 10 murders and six murders in Loughinisland respectively, finding collusion in both cases.
  • The De Silva Review reports that, between 1985 and 1989, 85% of UDA “intelligence” originated from the security forces.
  • Lord Stevens, who conducted three investigations into collusion, arrested 210 loyalists as part of his investigation – of these, 207 were informers.
  • Operation Kenova is investigating over 40 murders linked to the alleged agent Stakeknife, focusing on the IRA, members of the Army, the security services and other Government agencies.

How many coherent sentences could Lewis string together about any of the cases? He has lots to learn. For instance, the early release scheme introduced under the GFA for the paramilitaries applies equally to the security forces.  The  “sentence”  of the court can be reduced from two years to zero – “just like that”, as Tommy Cooper the master of the terrible conjuring track  might have said .

My reading of the leaks doesn’t appear to rule this out. A lay person might blink at the thought that anyone convicted for any of the above should get away with it scot-free. But we’ve been living with it for paramilitaries  for decades, when the evidence has been no more forthcoming. Nor can the parties at Stormont cast too many stones for breaching  Stormont House after leaving the big building empty for three years.

Lewis may have laid a trap to draw his critics’ fire in advance and catch them unawares with the solution they have  avoided for years.  Their political motives – appeasing  constituencies – are not necessarily morally superior  to Lewis’s. It also might suit Westminster  mightily not to be pressured into admitting high level collusion, possibly with embarrassing  names attached.  Victims  he may regard as softened up by the agreement at last to make legacy payments .  And he can claim that he is hardly the only one to  breach the Stormont House Agreement after the  Assembly was shut down for  three years in 2017.

If Brandon Lewis was delivering  a punishment to the local parties for failing  to agree on the legacy I would  have  a twinge of sympathy for him. Hiding their failure behind sympathy for victims is unedifying.  However his unilateral act smacks of the same cynicism that  David Frost has displayed  in negotiating  the final  Brexit deal. It is all of piece with how the British Government prioritised getting Brexit done over the needs of Northern Ireland and landed us with the Protocol.

Boris Johnson may have been confirmed as  the unlikely darling of Tory England.  He will be buoyed up with greater confidence by the sweeping Conservative successes in local elections and Hartlepool. But his  government’s  lack of respect for the awkward squads in  Stormont will make NI that little bit harder to govern at a time when the British government needs  to build more trust  than ever since the GFA .  And withholding what he was about to brief  the press within hours of meeting Simon Coveney face to face is a baffling insult.

On a different note if you need upwards stimulation,  look no further than  this article,  “Northern Ireland’s Uneasy Centenary,” in the FT by Marianne Elliot, an impeccably academic historian  of Northern Ireland  who has lived and worked in England for decades  but whose heart belongs to Belfast. Note her use of  “flippancy”. This means you Mr Lewis.

I come from a moderate Catholic/nationalist background, meaning that my family aspired to some distant future when Ireland would be reunited. The violence of the Troubles (1969-98) tarnished that dream. My parents stopped talking about it altogether. We lived in traditionally mixed-religion North Belfast, so rarely encountered overt sectarianism on a day-to-day basis. But there were regular reminders of our minority status at election times and during the Orange “marching season”. The truth is that in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland we all had a sixth sense of who belonged to which community and rarely talked about what divided us.   

How I wish we had, for the kind of mixed-religion housing estate on which we lived is no more. The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast. Those mixed estates were re-sorted into single-identity ones, as people were forced out. They have never returned. Such sectarian polarisation helps perpetuate stereotypes and facilitates paramilitary godfatherism and criminality..

The historical accuracy of the stories forming both identities can be queried. But the history of the streets, reflected in endless murals, reinforces the divisiveness. The lack of an understanding of Ulster Protestantism was one of the factors contributing to partition. Indeed, for much of the past century nationalists and republicans seem to have been utterly incapable of grasping why Protestants feel as they do. Charles Townshend’s recent book The Partition cites an intriguing example of pre-partition Sinn Féin debate, when its future president Father Michael O’Flannagan did grasp the issue. “We claim the right to decide what is to be our nation,” he said, but “refuse them the same right.” The future direction of Northern Ireland may depend as much on this recognition as on other factors. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, dressed in black, delivered a eulogy to Prince Philip and the royal family at the Stormont Assembly on April 12. That would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Brexit has been enormously destabilising. It put where to reinstate that border centre stage again…


Despite my love for Northern Ireland, for its people, its physical geography, its quirky sense of humour and natural friendliness, I know too much about the sectarian substrata ever to feel entirely at ease about its future.. 

These are volatile times. A recent BBC NI poll found 51 per cent of people North and South expecting that Northern Ireland will have left the UK in the next 25 years. That is far too narrow a constituency to assume it would happen without considerable violence and the same poll found 86 per cent expecting a return to major violence in the future. The flippancy of the Johnson government in its public statements on Northern Ireland does not inspire confidence that it has grasped this…

There are still too many ghosts left over from the Troubles. You simply cannot be flippant about peace in Northern Ireland. It is still too fragile and the state created out of our disagreements 100 years ago has some way to go before its siege mentality evaporates sufficiently for constructive discussion to take place about its long-term future.

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