The Moral Maze programme on BBC Radio Four for last week focused on the perennial question of Northern Ireland’s legacy and gave careful consideration as to what the consequences of declaring an amnesty for past crimes might be.
The legacy processes don’t really work largely because it’s a hodgepodge of negotiated pleadings from the leading protagonists in the conflict. Less aimed at truth and reconciliation and more at giving maximum comfort to those political operators who, should prosecutions ever proceed, would be deeply compromised in their present political formation.
The problem isn’t should these folk be protected? They are already protected informally by an unwillingness of the justice system in Belfast to take up any cases against anyone who is perceived to be actively working for the peace. And, for the most part, most of us don’t really have a problem with that with that, in principle.
Generalised forgiveness is integral to the idea of peace-setting and the Belfast Agreement. More perplexing is that the problem is far more contemporary than it often appears. If you suspend justice for some actors to protect the peace, how do you ensure justice for future generations? Tim Stanley was the only panelist to seriously pursue such a line of enquiry.
Northern Ireland before the Troubles was one of the most peaceful and law abiding places in these islands. Indeed throughout it had very low levels of civilian crime. Even today, (if you exclude paramilitary based crime) that low level of common crime persists. Raising contemporary paramilitary criminality usually signals endless rounds of whataboutery.
One of the most recent illustrations of the consequences of suspending justice regarding paramilitary crime is the death three years ago of Lyra McKee (still unsolved). The menacing of working-class communities is ongoing. Organised gangs use politics to justify a permanent war footing then use coercive violence against people within their own communities.
The first witness was the only one to give testimony to this aspect . Of course forgiveness is critical. I have often wondered how my Jewish friends whose parents and grandparents only barely survived getting out of Hungary, Czech, Austria, Germany Lithuania managed to acquire an equilibrium that many in Northern Ireland still struggle for.
Perhaps they’re just better at hiding it. Sandra Peake of the Wave Trauma Centre in answer to a very direct question from long term panel member Matthew Taylor as to whether an amnesty might be a relief to many victims she works with, and “could it be a relief that there’s no longer anything more that they can do?” gave this response:
No, I think that they will see that they’re letting their loved ones down by not pursuing, by not having their loved ones’ case acknowledged. I don’t think it would be a relief, I think it will hand the injustice to the next generation. And I also think it will undermine the rule of law here.
People have a concept that we have a peace process and that the peace process is working, and it has worked with many people, but we still have active paramilitaries operating within our communities. One of the big things that’s not considered fully here is that there’s an intimacy to the violence.
People are seeing the people who responsible for their loved ones’death in the street, in the shop, potentially at church and some of those people are continuing to wink at people, smirk at people to let them know that that power and control still exists.[emphasis added]
The issue is not about grounding an abstract concept of justice but, according to Sandra, acknowledging that in permanently granting perpetrators the protection of the (UK) state, we would be upholding a relation between perpetrators and their victims that underwrites a very current power infrastructure within our most marginalised communities.
Under further questioning from Matthew, Sandra makes a powerful point that justice is not the same to everyone and justice to the max (of the retributive sort) not necessarily what many victims are looking for:
Justice is different things for different people. I work very closely with families whose loved ones have been abducted and murdered and secretly buried in the Troubles. Those families are looking for their loved ones’bodies back, they are looking to lay them to rest. So that’s very practically oriented, trying to support them to get that.
Justice for those who’ve been very severely injured and maimed here, is getting access to a special injured pension to ensure that they can live independent as independent life as possible.
But where you have families who are looking for information the only way that they can get out is through the the criminal justice process which has legal compatibility. Hopefully with time that information will give them or they need to be able to move forward. [Emphasis added]
That may sound unremarkable, but as she tells Taylor in an earlier exchange, the ad hoc investigation into cold cases was stopped as it got to the mid 80s, meaning that:
Some of these families have not seen the police from the day they came to the door to tell him their loved one was dead and therefore they don’t have even the base information of what type of investigation was undertaken.
For most of us who come from or continue to live in middle class areas few of these things affect us. It is as though the communities that suffered the most are being asked to pay the highest price. [Let no one interfere with those poisonous foundations, eh? – Ed] Well, possibly.
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