Alex Kane: We’re too stuck in past to even consider an amnesty

An amnesty, or anything giving the impression of amnesty, must always come with a price. Otherwise it is, quite literally, nothing more than a move-along-nothing-to-see-here-get out/stay out-of-jail-free-card.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 1:00 pm

Speaking on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ on Friday, on the back of a wider debate about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – which doesn’t cover Northern Ireland – Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We have thousands of victims who are not having the opportunity to have their cases looked at and they are the victims whose loved ones were murdered by paramilitary terrorist organisations.”

The problem with extending the bill to cover Northern Ireland is, as Doug Beattie noted, that any such move would be “transferred also to a terrorist”. Surprisingly, perhaps, opposition was also voiced by Gerry Kelly: “We have Boris Johnson saying he would bring in legislation to protect soldiers (but) what about the victims of those?”

Kenny Donaldson, from Innocent Victims United, has a more nuanced position: “Of course, veterans who have been investigated in the past and who have been found to have no case to answer should not continue to be persecuted – that is wrong and should cease. However, where a member of the security forces committed criminal activities they should be held accountable for it – that has consistently been our position.” But he also made the point that there was a ‘clear difference’ between the security forces and paramilitary groups.

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What makes Northern Ireland a particularly difficult case, almost a quarter-of-a-century after the beginning of the peace process, is that it is not yet (and may never be) a place at peace with itself; with little hard evidence that people have fully, genuinely embraced a desire for reconciliation, or a determination to work together in common cause. We haven’t even reached the point at which we can talk about a common narrative, rather than us-and-them versions of our collective history.

Again, 23 years since the signing and referendum-endorsement of a Good Friday Agreement which was supposed to signal the beginning of a new way of doing political business here, there’s rarely a week goes by when we don’t have a ceremony marking the death of a ‘volunteer’ from either the IRA or one of the loyalist paramilitary groups. And in remembering and honouring ‘their own’ dead, they are also reminding those who suffered at the hands of the person being remembered of the hurt and violence visited upon them.

Constantly reminding ourselves of past horrors and past hurts is also, in fact, a constant reminder that we don’t seem to be very good at moving on, let alone moving forward together. Another reason why an amnesty is impossible: and will probably always be impossible.

Let me return to my opening comment about the price that comes with an amnesty. Or, putting that another way, what must be done, or put in place, before an amnesty would ever come close to being acceptable to the vast majority? And if it isn’t acceptable to the vast majority right from the start, then an amnesty, in whatever language it was couched, would probably do far more harm than good: to the extent, perhaps, of bringing even limited peace-process progress to a complete stop.

So, what do we need to see before giving serious consideration to an amnesty? Conflict resolution, rather than mere conflict stalemate. Considerable and demonstrable evidence of an ongoing process of political and societal reconciliation between sides which were once described as ‘opposing’. Clear agreement and similarly clear evidence of an ability to work together at political/government levels. The first recognisable roots of a shared history and understanding of the past century.

An acknowledgment of wrongs done (and there were many wrongs done). And an acknowledgment that the vast majority of people, even through the darkest and most difficult days, did support peaceful and democratic processes. Some sort of truth and reconciliation machinery which will allow us to speak directly to and with each other (as well as admission of crimes committed). A rock-solid certainty that paramilitary violence has gone; and gone for good.

Some of you would want to add to that list, particularly those who believe that justice should be seen to be done: in other words, people being punished for their crimes. I’m pretty sure – and it actually pains me to say it – that point will not be reached anytime soon for most outstanding, unresolved cases: probably never.

I remember talking to the widow of a murdered RUC officer who told me – and I’m paraphrasing from memory – she could, just about, tolerate aspects of the peace process, if it looked like Northern Ireland could be transformed into a better place than it had been during the Troubles. When I asked about an amnesty – this conversation was around 2002/3 – she made it clear she’d need to be ‘tripping over’ an avalanche of positive change.

There hasn’t been an avalanche of change. I’m not even optimistic enough to describe it as much more than a trickle of change: certainly nowhere near enough to justify an amnesty fitting the definition of, ‘an act of an authority (such as a government) by which pardon (or a promise to end evidence-searching for prosecution and punishment) is granted to a large group of individuals’.

The fact that even the discussion of a potential amnesty is met with widespread hostility and negativity tells you a worrying amount about how slowly our peace process is still moving.

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Alistair Bushe