Give the Legacy Commission a chance. The NI parties have failed to agree on an alternative for 13 years

The wholesale opposition to the UK government’s  new minted  Legacy Act was predictable and expected. At the same time the good faith of the all the politicians involved  is suspect, as Newton Emerson pitilessly described over a year ago.

At every level, rejections shamelessly cancel out. All Stormont’s political parties oppose the legislation, currently being rushed through Westminster. But unionists object only to an amnesty for terrorists; Sinn Féin to an amnesty for former security force personnel.

Protecting soldiers is the Conservative government’s blatant agenda.

Although the opposition has been  predictable has it been accurately priced in?   The government’s  investment in the awkwardly named ICRIR ( Independent Commission for Reconciliation and  Information Retrieval) is a gamble. The Commission was set up even before the Act  was passed in a clear attempt to  bounce involved parties into eventual  compliance by a beleagured  government with a year to run until the general election which  may prove its nemesis.  On the face of it, Labour’s pledge to repeal the Legacy Act  hardly augurs well for its survival or even startup.  The reputation of  the Chief Commissioner the former Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan is on the line.  He knows the risks yet still appears to believe they’re worth taking,  if only to get something – anything- going to work on.   Functions identified separately  in the Stormont House Agreement formula are combined  in an essentially all – powerful  bureaucratic whole.    Even among critics  the belief is strong  that little new evidence is available from police sources. Any new evidence will no longer be tested in court.  But  1000 cases still remain to be processed for reporting to victims.  Truly fresh information will only come from  other official records of the “ dirty war”  and personal testimony under conditional amnesty . A blanket amnesty has been avoided as a stage too far, at least at this stage.

Can the Commission survive  the critical onslaught? It now remains  to be seen if victims will apply to it for information, however eagerly  desired.  Morgan has said he would resign  if the courts agree with many critics  that the Act is incompatible with the European Convention  on Human Rights and its Court ( ECtHR).

A decision is now awaited on whether the Dublin government will take the UK Government to  the Strasbourg Court. This is  a key example of how the GFA  partnership has languished  in recent years even on the central aspects of human rights. Dublin like the  NI parties was not consulted on the Legacy Act  and resents  it as an act of British unilateralism.

But  Irish hands are no cleaner than  British.

Successive Irish governments have operated “a unilateral amnesty for the IRA”, as former minister for justice Michael McDowell confirmed last year. There were theatrical intakes of breath at this statement of the blindingly obvious.

Moreover, early Dublin governments amnestied each other’s forces for  most the legacy of the 1920s Troubles. Had they continued to litigate in a similar time frame they’d still be at it when our more recent Troubles  were reaching a climax in the early 1970s.

Criticism of the Legacy Act  has about it more than a whiff of performance art. Politicians prefer to take principled stands which cost them nothing rather than take responsibility which carries a price.

The Commission is the only show in town.   Despite its obvious limitations, all stakeholders should engage with it through cooperation and challenge as appropriate. There is at least an opportunity here to transform it into something closer to what victims deserve and society as a whole needs.  With real public backing the UK government will find it much harder to resist pressure for effective disclosure and  for nationalists including  the Dublin government which may soon  include Sinn Fein, to cease treating omerta as an immutable fact of life .

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