Legacy Scandal: '˜Sinn Fein wants to push on from On The Runs to wherever it can in its Brit bashing,' says Austen Morgan

In the latest in our series of essays on the legacy imbalance, AUSTEN MORGAN says that to concentrate on the handful of unlawful state killings, which the '˜legacy industry' does, is disproportionate, inhumane and perverse (see bottom of article for links to other essays):

Thursday, 30th August 2018, 1:34 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th September 2018, 5:13 pm
Front and back cover of 'Tony Blair and the IRA' by Austen Morgan, his book about the On The Runs secret scheme of letters to IRA suspects that was approved by Tony Blair when he was prime minister

The Northern Ireland Office’s (NIO) draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) bill – out to consultation until 10 September 2018 – is undeserving of support from anyone committed to the rule of law.

I endorse the big idea, articulated by Colonel Tim Collins, launching the News Letter’s Stop The Legacy Scandal series (August 20), that former soldiers and police officers should now — as the IRA did in 2000-14 — seek their own comfort letters by writing to the prime minister.

It still needs repeating that: republicans are responsible for 60% of Troubles deaths, loyalists for 30%, and the state — soldiers and police — for the remaining 10%.

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News Letter series for the late summer and autumn of 2018

Further, that all the terrorist killings were unlawful, while most of the state killings were lawful; to concentrate on the handful of unlawful state killings (as the legacy industry does) is, quite frankly, disproportionate, inhumane and perverse.

I accept that the UK government has a double problem, of its own making:

one, the PSNI’s historical enquiries team – Sir Hugh Orde’s original contribution to policing — was wound up after 2013, because of an academic expressing a bizarre legal opinion;

and two, the police ombudsman — recently skewered by Mr Justice McCloskey in the high court — has been permitted to mount historical investigations since 1999 with little or no statutory cover.

Austen Morgan, who is a barrister in London and Belfast

That is no justification for the government’s over-the-top escalation of the 2009 Eames/Bradley idea of a five-year legacy commission into four new bodies, to be stuffed with quangocrats creeping their missions, the most important being a proposed historical investigation unit (HIU); this will be less criminal investigation by accountable police officers, and more bashing of coppers for, basically, collusion.

I have just sent my submission to the NIO, attaching a different – and much shorter – draft bill (see below).

I have four principal arguments.

First, there is inadequate political support for the NIO’s draft bill.

It originates in Dr Richard Haass’s draft agreement of 31 December 2013, prepared for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

The four Haass bodies were premised on a five-party consensus at Stormont, in order to get through the executive.

Sinn Féin has stuck with legacy, through the 2014 Stormont House agreement and the 2015 Fresh Start agreement.

But the DUP – which romanticises the involuntary coalition of 2007-17 – is more against than for.

Second, I do not believe that the 187 IRA comfort letters have been rescinded, and that is why I have submitted a draft bill so parliament may undo the on the runs administrative scheme.

The NIO will not welcome the idea. But will the DUP’s ten MPs propose amendments to the draft bill?

Third, if the comfort letters continue to have effect (as I anticipate), then fairness and equality require that we should back Colonel Tim Collins: all that is needed is hundreds of requests from the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police will concentrate the minds of civil servants for some time.

If the hero of Iraq’s idea does not take off, the idea of a statute of limitations will once again come into play.

There is a wider UK basis for this, and considerable support in parliament and the armed forces.

Richard Beynon MP’s Armed Forces (Statute of Limitations) bill is listed for a second reading on 23 November 2018.

Sinn Féin thinks it has destroyed the idea, but it will still be abstaining from Westminster.

What will the DUP do?

Fourth, the office of police ombudsman since 1999 is significantly responsible for the version of Northern Ireland’s past that we have.

That is why I have suggested giving the police ombudsman an express statutory obligation, to investigate the 300 police officers killed in the Troubles, and those who have died violently since.

That would concentrate minds in Belfast’s cathedral quarter.

I have stated my view on drawing a line since my 2016 book, Tony Blair and the IRA, and I do so again in my NIO submission.

But I conclude that the political conundrum – given the suspension of Stormont – for the two big parties is: the DUP wants to be seen to be defending soldiers and police officers; Sinn Féin wants to push on from OTRs towards wherever it can in its Brit bashing.

The former is unwilling to help Sinn Féin, and the latter is campaigning against the DUP on a broad front.

• Austen Morgan is a barrister based in London and author of Tony Blair and the IRA (London 2016)