Ben Lowry: London has tipped into an amnesty amid a backdrop of division and confusion on legacy

Even people who follow politics will mostly long since have lost track of the debate around how to handle the legacy of the Troubles.

This week at Westminster there was a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee exchange on legacy between Stephen Farry  MP, in white shirt, and Sir Declan Morgan at the head of the table, right
This week at Westminster there was a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee exchange on legacy between Stephen Farry MP, in white shirt, and Sir Declan Morgan at the head of the table, right

An ‘amnesty’ bill to deal with the past will be back before MPs this coming week.

Stitching together a process that satisfies the almost irreconcilable aims of those who want to rehabilitate terrorism and those who think the security forces prevented civil war has proved beyond local politics.

There was an agreement on legacy in 2014 at Stormont House but it soon became clear that there was profound disagreement on how that deal would be put into action.

The News Letter played a major part in the debate with our Stop the Legacy Scandal series of essays in 2018, in which a range of contributors wrote for us on the past.

The parameters for inclusion in the series were simple — that the authors believed that the handling of legacy was panning out in such an unbalanced way (against state forces) as to constitute a scandal. Beyond accepting that premise contributors were free to write as they wished, and there was a range of fascinating articles from victims, ex security forces, churchmen, academics, lawyers, intelligence experts, politicians and even ex paramilitaries.

No other media outlet had given proper space to those who argue that this process went out of control long ago, and became a disproportionate pursuit of the security forces who saved Northern Ireland from violent anarchy, with minimal scrutiny of the terrorists.

Another thing has been apparent in this legacy quagmire.

Plenty of unionists and supporters of the security forces still have not absorbed some of the patterns and trends of how legacy has (and will) pan out in Northern Ireland. Thus they are almost joining Sinn Fein in criticising the government for its ‘amnesty’ while failing to realise this key rule: that any elaborate legacy process will turn against UK state forces in the Troubles.

There are umpteen reasons for this. One is obvious, that state forces had records and they and their actions are easily traced.

But there are other reasons too, including the fact that republicans have spent decades plotting legacy, and have built up a considerable network of support on the subject (legal, academic, political, at home, abroad, in media, even the arts — I am thinking of some of the fiction in films which produces such a grossly inaccurate and brutal image of the police and others as to in effect be pro terrorist propaganda).

Defenders of the state, on the other hand, almost invariably lack such zeal.

The Stormont House deal included multiple bodies, the biggest of which was a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).

Many unionists believed that this unit would bring balance to legacy by including a massive criminal investigatory element, investigating or re-investigating murders, 60% of which were carried out by republican terrorists.

But it gradually became apparent that HIU might itself turn against the state. Again, this is for many reasons that there is not enough room in this article to explain.

The way the police have been treated in investigations in historic allegations against them is its own sub scandal, and suffice to say that one of the big problems with HIU is that it would have facilitated a republican ‘hunt for collusion’.

(There are so many elements to legacy that I can see that this article itself could become confusing, so this web version of it has various links below to other stories we have done on legacy, that expand on some points mentioned here.)

Some years ago I warned that Northern Ireland might tip into an amnesty for Troubles violence, by which I meant that there were always strong arguments in favour of drawing a line under the past, but that it would be wrong just to fall into such an approach.

But we did so, because the UK government panicked when it began to realise that there might be many trials of soldiers.

If legacy had just been a process in which the RUC, not army, was trashed, then London would not have intervened (which is ironic, because the police has much less to answer than the army because the RUC killed far fewer people than the military).

I remember watching Northern Ireland MPs in Westminster raise the unfair fate of soldiers, which pleased Tory backbenchers, but rarely heard much said in the Commons about the treatment of the RUC. Retired police are among those who last week launched a judicial review of the Police Ombudsman over such probes (see below a link to an article by two legal experts on the .

It was not inevitable that legacy would turn against the security forces. I long ago began to argue that there had been a moral collapse on legacy, and an abject failure to turn the tables on terrorists who had no hesitation in hounding state forces.

One way of doing so, I suggested, was to launch numerous public inquiries into different aspects of IRA terror, to counter the multiple sub criminal civil actions and inquiries and inquests and ombudsman probes into allegations against the state.

It was clear there was no appetite for this. For years weak UK ministers have stayed mute when Irish ministers like Simon Coveney scold them on legacy, despite Ireland having so much to answer on its extradition refusals, as a result of which so many people were murdered.

Ireland has also quite obviously operated a de facto amnesty for the IRA post 1998, as the former Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell has confirmed.

In summary, it was evident long ago that the UK needed to act unilaterally on legacy to bring a halt to the scandal, but it has now done so in the wrong way — to close down much of the legacy process, including the anti state juggernaut, but not to reverse its imbalance.

Thus, incredibly, Sinn Fein, the party that was long associated with the IRA, by far the biggest killer of the Troubles, has been so confident that legacy structures will work to the advantage of republicans it has become shrill in its demands for the proposals of Stormont House to be implemented.

A final thought on this: there was an extraordinary exchange in Westminster this week between the Alliance MP Stephen Farry and the former Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan, in which the former took exception to the latter disclosing a previous letter to him from Mr Farry, discouraging the judge to publish some of his ideas on how legacy could be approached. There is a link to that exchange below.

Sir Declan said that politicians had failed. He acknowledged that the communities were worried about the re-writing of history.

Certainly many of us are worried about the latter. But I would add a further concern that has been troubling many of us — the central role of the courts in citing factors such as Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights to force or push along a grossly disproportionate focus on the security forces.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles on legacy below:

• Lord Howell in 2021: After Gerry Adams ruling, Parliament must reaffirm its intention on internment [see within this links to other criticism of Supreme Court in Adams case]

• Other articles by Ben Lowry below: