Rescind the Legacy Act to help restore Stormont…

Gareth Williams is a UK Labour Party member with an interest in Northern Ireland. He is writing in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter

If Rishi Sunak wants a Stormont-shaped trophy, he shouldn’t have any issue ditching such a shameful and universally detested piece of legislation to get it.  

On one of the rare occasions in which he actually endeavoured to turn up, Sunak’s recent 3D chess choreography with Jeffrey Donaldson at PMQs has apparently brought us to the cusp of a breakthrough which will see the Executive restored and British lobby hacks able to resume their usual service of only checking on Northern Ireland if people are actively murdering each other (or possibly how this will play with that ever-crucial bloc of DUP/SF swing voters)

Sunak’s latest gambit certainly demonstrated his trademark management consultant charisma, right down to the nanosecond flash of disdain in the eyes while calibrating a response to someone he views as an intellectual and social inferior (which, in fairness to Sir Jeffrey is a not-insubstantial cohort)

Listening to Sunak is rarely life-enhancing, but hearing someone whose government has so recently treated every community in Northern Ireland with a magnitude of contempt which takes genuine effort cast himself as the voice of responsible governance while expecting plaudits for his efforts is enough to create a stage of hypertension not currently detectable on NHS-approved devices.

The case against the dubiously titled Legacy and Reconciliation Act has been put more eloquently by contributors here and in the collective and individual voices of victims than this writer is able to or has any right to attempt, but in its most basic terms it represents a sovereign government prohibiting victims of some of the gravest crimes ever committed on its soil from accessing any form of justice (criminal or civil).

It isn’t simply a de facto amnesty for the perpetrators of these but the legal disenfranchisement of an entire constituent country. Tens of thousands of victims and their relatives – the vast majority of them in Northern Ireland – will now see the chance of justice (or even meaningful investigation) to which they are legally entitled foreclosed – and all to protect a dozen or so figures who stand credibly accused of war crimes.

The ultimate thanks for this unquestionably goes to the “campaign” by an even smaller number of newspapers who’ve seized on the cause of those who killed unarmed civilians on British streets then proceeded to torch guarantees of immunity by repeatedly lying about it under oath potentially facing legal action for doing so as one of the defining injustices of our time.

To put the legislation into perspective, if you’re a Universal Credit claimant who misses a job interview or a disabled person who fails to declare a (probably several) nights’ stay on an A&E trolley, there is now a very good chance of you experiencing the full investigative might of the British state to a greater extent than those responsible for Kingsmill or Loughinisland ever will.

Sunak leads the latest iteration of a government which can credibly claim to be tougher on cancer patients than it is on terrorists, although you can probably see CCHQ leaving that particular one in the drafts folder.

The legislation ensures that NI will never move beyond the Troubles. Truth is a precondition of reconciliation, and this is toothless to ensure either. The “conditional” amnesty is unconditional absent any real means to legally mandate cooperation.

It very likely breaches international law (and not just in a specific and limited way).  In short, it stains the UK’s conscience, undermines the rule of law and renders it a pariah state in ways that “parties” by junior staffers in Downing Street never could and to an extent which may well prove impossible to undo.  It shames all who supported its passage and the institutions which allowed it to happen.

Not that this makes the slightest difference. Sure, Steve Baker’s lasting contribution in ministerial office will be ensuring those who kidnapped then strapped Patsy Gillespie to over 1,000 pounds of explosives will never face any consequences for it, but he has said some very critical things about Boris Johnson (after he failed to offer him a sufficiently senior Cabinet post) and gets upset when people are mean to him on Twitter; isn’t that what’s important here? #BeKind.

That the UK Government hasn’t (as far as we know) offered concessions on the legacy legislation in any of their internal discussions despite near-universal opposition speaks volumes, as does the DUP’s manifest disinterest in seeking them. If equal citizenship within the UK means anything, it presumably means access to justice on an equal footing and it’s hard to see the likes of Sunak, Baker or Heaton-Harris actively legislating to protect those who murdered tens of thousands of their constituents because tl;dr “it’s too much effort” to do anything about.

Whatever ‘clarification’ is provided over the sea border in customs and regulatory terms won’t extend to the very definite one that exists in the value of life between east and west.

Changing this would mean something of an eleventh-hour shift in strategy, but Sinn Féin’s policy demands by the time of NDNA bore only partial resemblance to their reasons for withdrawing from the institutions in 2017, with little long-term damage to their electoral prospects.

What’s more, prioritising the Legacy Act would genuinely (and unusually) place the DUP in line with majority opinion in NI (and GB), while securing its repeal would demonstrate a far more sweeping concession than whatever figleaf advisory body, a manufactured row over a border poll nobody seriously believes is imminent or IOU secondary legislation that the NIO’s latest essay crisis is eventually going to cough up.

Would it require an embarrassing climbdown from the government? Yes, but Sunak has proved more than willing to execute the most humiliating and eardrum-piercing of U-turns if he calculates it’s in his interest to make them. If he’s willing to junk Net Zero just weeks after publicly committing to it and shredding a key plank of his economic strategy in the process, surely this self-proclaimed “proud unionist” would be only too happy to do whatever is necessary to secure a “strong and functioning” NI and the Union? Alternatively, if he wants to run a campaign on a pledge to shield the IRA from prosecution, he is more than welcome to do so.

Even in a less than ideal world, a constituent nation wouldn’t have to temporarily forgo its own governance to ensure that the most basic human rights of its residents were protected, but the devolved institutions are down, the current government is (apparently) committed to their restoration, and at the moment they have to listen to (some) local voices to a greater extent than they normally do or ever want to. However justifiable you might feel any of these are – and this writer is no supporter of either the DUP or its “strategy” – if the government is sincere in its aspiration to restore devolution, they should at least be willing to entertain it.

Of course, the chances of that happening under this administration and this prime minister are slim to none. Few groups were left as untouched by the Troubles as England’s provincial middle classes and it’s the latter’s views which matter exclusively for at least the next few months.

The DUP will ultimately take the course which best preserves their ministerial privileges. The Tory government will do likewise to an even more shameless extent, but neither should ever be allowed to pretend they’re animated by anything loftier than that.

The moral high ground both in NI and the UK as a whole has been at-capacity for some time now and may be the one area which could unambiguously benefit from more stringent border controls.

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