Ben Lowry: The UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite

A joy of working on the world’s oldest English language daily newspapers is that we can draw on a vast archive of reports on global events.

Saturday, 17th July 2021, 9:19 am
Updated Monday, 19th July 2021, 8:48 am
The Belfast Agreement did not include a formal amnesty but it did seem to lead to an informal one

In the case of the News Letter much of that archive, going back to 1737, is missing or scattered between libraries, private collections and our own bound copies.

In 2018 and 2019 I edited an On This Day 280 Years Ago column based on copies from exactly 280 years previously, in 1738 and 1739.

No newspaper in history had run such a daily column — and I can say that confidently, because no English language daily title has survived as long as we have done.

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Most people’s eyes glaze over when I show them a very old News Letter. The old papers look very forbidding. There are no nice pictures, not even black and white ones, because it is more than a century before photographs, and indeed there are not even drawings. The page is crammed with text that looks boring, set on now crumbling paper.

The stories seem to come from a backward, impoverished and cruel time. In many respects it is all of those things, and there are reports for example of hangings of thieves.

But in fact when you read those early papers, they are filled with intrigue, gossip, wonder, high politics and international affairs. There is plenty of war too, including conflicts across Europe that are raging, or just beginning, or ending.

Some of the most violent News Letter reports come from Corisca, where there had been a civil war to get independence from Genoa.

In late 1738 there was a peace deal on the island.

The outline agreement was divided into eight ‘articles’.

The first article describes “a general amnesty ... for all Persons that have incurred those Penalties on Account of the Rebellion”.

The second article deals with decommissioning. It reads: “A general Disarming, under Pain of Death of all Persons that shall afterwards be found to have Arms.”

The final article: “For the Future, Murders shall be punished with Death without Remission.”

The peace deal is one of the many reports that are a reminder that people were of course not primitive 300 years ago, but capable of making intricate legal agreements.

In some respects the Corsica deal was more sophisticated and bold than the 1998 Belfast Agreement, because it included both an amnesty and a bite (death penalty for rebels who did not play ball).

The Belfast Agreement did not include a formal amnesty but it did seem to have an informal one.

How realistic was it that overall political and criminal decisions would have panned out in such as way that IRA Army Council leaders such as Martin McGuinness, Billy McKee, Brian Keenan or Kevin McKenna would, if still alive, be facing jail terms?

It included lots of other elements that had the characteristics of amnesty such as the early release of prisoners, the criminal justice exemptions given to those who co-operated in decommissioning or finding the remains of the Disappeared. It was later followed by On The Run letters.

Yet the Belfast Agreement had no bite. Few people in this era would suggest execution of paramilitaries who did not accept that 1998 deal, but there was no sanction for those who did not co-operate except they faced full jail terms if convicted of ongoing terror.

There is a plausible case to be made that the UK cleverly succeeded in a long policy of normalisation of NI from the early 1970s to the 1990s, but then threw away their successes over the IRA with a policy of non stop appeasement of Sinn Fein post 1998.

This amnesty is the latest phase in that appeasement, hastened by the homicide trials of veterans.

The legacy paper unveiled by Brandon Lewis this week does not answer the questions I posed in my column last week (see link below), as to when republicans and the Irish government are going to face meaningful pressure on legacy — the sort of elementary pressure that might make them think twice about lecturing the UK on the past.

And details of the government’s plan are uncertain, such as whether or not it will be able to shut down legacy inquests (which are mostly into killings by the state).

Or whether people who carry out non criminal investigations of the past will also adjudicate on it. Last year two lawyers Neil Faris and Peter Smith QC wrote in this newspaper about how the Stormont House legacy plans included “a gross violation of the maxim Audi alteram partem — a fundamental principle of justice requiring that no one may be judged to have done wrong without ... a fair opportunity to challenge the evidence against them”.

Ex RUC were particularly vulnerable to such adjudications (although a planned ‘police misconduct’ element of legacy has rightly now been ditched).

Having said all of the above, the UK government has made a surprisingly emphatic attempt to close ballooning investigations into the past.

Anyone who wants this amnesty to be overturned needs to be realistic about the fact that it is those former soldiers and police officers who will bear an undue burden.

I have written many times that if the UK and Northern Ireland had not suffered a moral collapse in the face of an IRA that was repudiated across society, we would have embarked on a major London-led review as to how such a scandalous anti state legacy imbalance ever reached this level.

But there is barely any stomach for that and London has instead done something some of us warned about years ago — it has been intimidated by the welter of probes into the state, it has allowed the terrorists to face barely any scrutiny, and it has inadvertently tipped into an amnesty.

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:

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