It is clearly both of those things. Some of us who have followed it closely for years are still not clear as to the details of legacy, or where exactly it is going politically.
But most people do not have the time or inclination to follow legacy closely, and if they are trying to figure out what is happening then they need to understand one central aspect of legacy. It is that the IRA is not remotely scared of it. Indeed, it feels it has the UK state on the run.
This is a republican movement which orchestrated terror over three decades, which grew that terror after the key civil rights demands were met early in the years of turbulence, and which upped the ante in March 1971 with the honeytrap murder of three young Scottish soldiers, at a point when only 59 people had been killed in the Troubles, and when troops were still relaxed about security (this was before internment or Bloody Sunday and could not be justified as a reprisal for them).
It is the organisation which went on to sustain that terrorism through multiple phases, including bombing Belfast, bombing the mainland, killing off duty security forces, particularly in border areas, politicians, judges and lawyers (particularly of Catholic background), then when all of these tactics failed people who supplied the security forces and ultimately targeting civil servants, before bombing major targets in England, from the cabinet to commercial centres.
Republican terrorists killed by far the most people, 2,100 of the 3,600 Troubles dead, yet encountered a restraint from the more powerful force — the UK — that barely any other society in history would have shown. Well known IRA ring leaders were allowed to come off terror at their own pace.
Despite all this, unionism and successive UK governments have acquiesced in a situation in which the IRA is not even slightly nervous about the past. The Irish government is not remotely scared either. Obviously, the IRA and Irish government are not the same thing. Successive administrations viewed the Provisionals with contempt. But there is little difference in how the two are approaching legacy.
Both Dublin and Sinn Fein have angrily called for implementation of the 2014 Stormont House deal on legacy, since the UK government announced a retreat from that plan in March last year (over growing concerns that the structures will worsen the legacy focus on the security forces, not alleviate it).
More significantly, however, successive Irish governments are trying to humiliate the UK in Europe and the US for dragging its feet on legacy probes into contentious Troubles state killings or UK security responses cases in which the IRA is determined to see scrutiny.
Amid this relentless pushing from Irish officials and Irish republicans, the UK seems to have only two core aims: first, to do what it can to minimise any political frustration within nationalist Ireland over Brexit, and that includes trying to placate criticism over legacy.
Second, to stop soldier trials. The make-up of participants in the secret Lambeth Palace talks reaffirmed that these were the UK aims.
Incredibly, there is no unionist or UK push to make legacy uncomfortable either the Irish republicans or the Republic.
I will not recap here on why current various legacy investigations are grossly imbalanced against state forces, or why current legacy prosecutions are grossly imbalanced against soldiers, but the web version of this article will link to articles in which I have tried to explain that point (see below).
Instead of apologising over legacy, and issuing joint statements with Simon Coveney, Mr Lewis should turbo charge the so-called ‘unilateral’ UK response to legacy, for which it is criticised, but which has been badly needed for so long.
The first thing London should do is announce a major review of how legacy has become so unbalanced, including a careful study of all the factors that have led to the imbalance in historic prosecutions.
Second, rather than wait for criminal charges against IRA leaders that never seem to come, while low ranking soldiers face the dock, it should identify test civil cases against the worst IRA killers and fund them, to counter the many IRA civil cases against the state.
Then it should announce a public inquiry into Irish extradition refusals of republican terrorists (102 out of 110 UK requests 1973 to 1997), calling on legal and security experts still alive from that time, and assessing how many people died as a result of dedicated killers using the Republic as a safe space to which to escape and plot their next murder of an isolated farmer.
These measures, it should be made clear, are just first steps towards a UK overhaul of legacy to end the focus on state forces who prevented civil war, while terrorists crow about the past and use UK taxpayer money to chase the UK state in multiple forums.
• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter deputy editor
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 27: Unionists have fully turned against Irish Sea border because they’ve seen the scale of disaster
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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