Ben Lowry: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old

There was uproar this week at the UK government’s suggestion of a move towards a possible amnesty.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 12:16 pm
Updated Saturday, 8th May 2021, 3:10 pm
The then SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness at Weston Park, in July 2001, where what was in effect an amnesty for absconding terrorists was proposed in paragraph 20 of the document that emerged from the discussions

We will get a clearer idea of London’s intentions in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, the very day the Ballymurphy inquest (in effect a huge public inquiry) findings are released.

Some pundits have pointed out that an amnesty was proposed by the then Labour government in 2005, but blocked by critics including the SDLP (who said security forces guilty of “state-planned murder” would walk free under such an arrangement).

In fact the amnesty proposal goes back 20 years almost exactly, to early summer 2001, at the Weston Park talks in Staffordshire, involving Northern Ireland parties.

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I remember this well because it was one of the first major in-depth news reports that I covered as a then relatively novice reporter.

The investigation related to Paragraph 20 of those talks.

The web version of this article will include the full wording of that paragraph, which said that the Irish and British governments “recognise that there is an issue to be addressed, with the completion of the early release scheme, about supporters of organisations now on cease-fire against whom there are outstanding prosecutions, and in some cases extradition proceedings, for offences committed before 10 April 1998”.

It went on to say that such people would, if convicted, benefit from early release under the Belfast Agreement and “would be a natural development of the scheme for such prosecutions not to be pursued”.

• See below for full wording of paragraph 20

This was not said to be a general amnesty but rather to relate to people who have been charged but not convicted of an offence, such as those who have jumped bail before or during trial. However, there was concern that the paragraph had been vaguely worded to placate Sinn Fein and would provide a future basis for an amnesty for all terror offences committed pre 1998.

It raised the notion that for the first time the UK was conceding that suspects would not necessarily have to answer terrorist charges against them.

“We are in the realms of legal revolution,” Austen Morgan, an expert in constitutional law, told me. “We would normally leave these matters to the DPP.”

Stephen Farry, then the Alliance Party’s justice spokesman, said: “Until now, it has always been the policy of the governments to regard terrorist activities as criminal offences, albeit politically-motivated ones. This proposal risks giving the impression that actions of republican and loyalist paramilitaries were legitimate.”

Dr Farry expressed surprise that other political parties had been relatively quiet over the proposals, believing that the implications of the clause had been underestimated.

“In every prosecution you are making a general point as well as particular point,You are saying these things are wrong.”

In the end the paragraph never came to pass, due to delays in paramilitary decommissioning.

Stormont would in fact fall over such disagreements the next year, and the amnesty proposal of 2005 would also come to nothing.

We now know that Tony Blair went on to instigate a secret scheme for On The Runs including Letters of Comfort and even Royal Pardons.

You could say that the UK has been determined to end prosecutions for exactly 20 years.

But in fact there has been an informal amnesty since 1998. After all, how feasible was it that Martin McGuinness would be made deputy first minister — a position which, Sinn Fein love to point out, is in effect joint first minister — and then arrested and made to face a criminal trial followed by a jail term?

His funeral was attended by a host of dignitaries from President Bill Clinton to the first minister Arlene Foster to the chief prosecutor to the head of the PSNI and others.

In 2018 the ex RUC assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan wrote on these pages that future legacy crime investigators might face “political pressure, not least from the two governments, not to pursue those whose arrest might ‘destabilise the peace process’”.

Yet while no IRA leader has ever faced charges commensurate with their decades of pre meditated murder and mayhem, several soldiers face homicide trials for single shootings.

I see real problems with this reported UK plan on prosecutions. But I do not blame them for seeking radical solutions to the scandal of how legacy is panning out.

• Paragraph 20 of the 2001 Weston Park talks document: “Both Governments also recognise that there is an issue to be addressed, with the completion of the early release scheme, about supporters of organisations now on cease-fire against whom there are outstanding prosecutions, and in some cases extradition proceedings, for offences committed before 10 April 1998. Such people would, if convicted, stand to benefit from the early release scheme. The Governments accept that it would be a natural development of the scheme for such prosecutions not to be pursued and will as soon as possible, and in any event before the end of the year, take such steps as are necessary in their jurisdictions to resolve this difficulty so that those concerned are no longer pursued.”

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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