A statute of limitations for the Troubles, which the prime minister is coming under pressure to introduce, will be a monumental mistake.
I share the pain of some politicians on the UK mainland, such as ex-Army officer and Conservative MP Richard Benyon, about the ‘witch hunt’ against old soldiers.
This is hard to stomach. It is also deeply one sided when set alongside the early prisoner release scheme and ‘amnesty’ for terrorists.
This is the arrangement Tony Blair created in the Belfast Agreement. The peace pact ensured the state would investigate itself, at huge cost to the public purse.
Controversial reports into past incidents critical of the security response have been the norm in Ulster for 20 years. These rarely feature in Westminster.
The net effect is that the security forces have been tainted, terrorism has been sanitised and some law firms have prospered. Ulster’s moral fabric is in tatters.
For sure, things must change. But the solution is not a statute of limitations.
It is far simpler. Put a halt on disproportionate investigating of the state, a strategy that the deputy editor of the News Letter, Ben Lowry, first mooted a few months ago (see link below).
Terrorists were responsible for 90% of killings and every bombing. Soldiers and police were responsible for 10%.
In going forward, whatever was spent on investigating the state, multiply by nine and this is the money to probe republican and loyalist terrorists. Once there is parity the process proceeds on a 90/10 split. By this time most veterans will be dead.
Evidential opportunities are still out there. Long after the Belfast Agreement I was highly commended for an intelligence-led operation where a terrorist was arrested and subsequently prosecuted for murder.
The killing was in the early 1990s. He may have only served two-years in prison, but at least he was convicted and the victim’s family got some form of criminal justice.
Not every terrorist has a comfort letter.
For the warmest of the cold cases there is a decent chance of getting the same result. There is also the opportunity to profile the most prolific offenders to see what new investigative strategy could work against them. Success here would clear multiple murders in one go.
The same applies to suspicions about a member of the security forces who broke the law. But a deluge of inquiries stretching back two decades has produced almost no prosecutions. This is unlikely to change because the vast majority of security forces acted honourably and had the honest intent to protect life.
Old cops and soldiers are not worried about their DNA on a murder weapon but a ‘peace process’ that has scapegoated them. They do not fear justice but injustice.
A statute of limitations works against catching those with the most blood on their hands and bolsters the Provos crave to be seen as the equals of British squaddies.
A statute of limitations will be music to the ears of critics of security policy in the Troubles. For constitutional politicians who courted the Provos, it is a tacit acknowledgement that this was the right thing to have done.
For citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly the innocent victims and survivors of terrorism, it does little to convince them that London cares about their plight or fully understands what is going on. Indeed, the Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin appears to have a better grasp of this than any party leader across the Irish Sea.
As the Troubles drew to a close the net was closing in on the men of violence. It was a matter of when, not if, they went to prison. And they knew it.
Giving secret promises to some that their crimes would not be investigated was an awful blunder.
A statute of limitations would be another.
• William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA and a senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for conflict prevention, Maynooth University, Ireland