Ben Lowry: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty

That perpetrators of calculated atrocities in which civilians were massacred, such as 1972 Bloody Friday or 1987 Poppy Day atrocity or 1992 Sean Graham, will get an amnesty will horrify the great bulk of the population.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 12:22 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th July 2021, 12:43 pm
Northern Ireland voters have long rejected parties that defended paramilitary violence yet there has been little pushback against lopsided probes against state forces

But we do need to be honest about how we have reached this situation.

Almost the whole of society has acquiesced in a situation in which the legacy of the Troubles has turned against a UK state that ultimately outwitted a terrorist onslaught in Northern Ireland.

Now most such acquiescence has been passive — most people have not actually wanted to see this scenario come about.

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From the time when Sinn Fein began contesting elections in the 1980s, political parties that supported paramilitary violence were rejected by a thumping majority (and by both communities in Northern Ireland).

Even in recent elections, Sinn Fein, which defends the past IRA campaign, is not the first choice of 70% to 77% of Northern Ireland voters.

Yet there has been barely any public pushback against a narrative (and an implied baseline for investigating legacy) that the police and army and republicans and loyalists were equally culpable for the Troubles.

There has been barely any pushback against the grossly lopsided historic investigations into state forces.

There has, however, been significant unease, and — particularly in England — some anger, about the imbalance in prosecutions of veterans.

But nothing like the controversy that there should have been over all this.

Yet the statistics on both the number of Troubles killings themselves, and the legacy investigations, are really quite simple.

Around 2,100 people were killed by republicans, 1,100 people were killed by loyalists, and 360 by the state.

Of the 1,100 loyalist killings, fewer than 50 were of republican paramilitaries, so loyalist intelligence was poor, despite the claims of systemic collusion and state assistance in loyalist killing and targeting.

If we are to believe these claims, then we must also believe that the state for some reason wanted loyalists to kill Catholic civilians or civilians who were perhaps known to have nationalist sympathies, but did not want to them to kill IRA operatives (the most active of whom were very well known to the state).

Meanwhile, roughly a third of the PSNI legacy branch investigations were into state killings (mostly army killings, because the army killed many more people than the RUC).

This is a gross imbalance, given that the state killed 10% of the Troubles dead, and those killings, while often appalling and tragic, were overwhelmingly legal (I say ‘often’ because tragic is not an apt descriptions of state killings of, for example, fanatical terrorists who were shout during murders attacks, in a bid to thwart those killing missions).

It is similar with regard to legacy homicide trials. Before the collapse of some recent cases against soldiers, I did an analysis of such legacy prosecutions and could fine nine of republicans, and six of soldiers.

Even if we accept that a third of state killings were dubious, and potentially illegal (most people who support the state’s response would say that is far too high), that is at most 3% of the overall illegal Troubles killings (all paramilitary killings were illegal).

Yet in recent years there has been a severe imbalance in wider legacy investigations.

There has been the £200m Bloody Sunday inquiry, the massive Ballymurphy inquest, which was in effect a major inquiry, costing many millions (given that it involved multiple QCs), the hundreds of cases against the RUC before the Police Ombudsman, multiple civil actions against state forces (typically funded by legal aid), the approval for 90+ legacy inquests (almost all of which involve investigations against the state). There are also now various police probes into cases where republicans have demanded investigations, such as the Glennane gang and the ‘hooded men’.

All of those investigations are adjudicated to the ‘balance of probabilities,’ where it is easier to find against.

Meanwhile, there has been barely any scrutiny of heinous IRA murders.

Anne Graham, sister of the lawyer and lecturer Edgar, murdered by the IRA at Queen’s University, did not even get an HET report into that wicked, wicked murder, she just got a letter saying there was no new evidence.

This legacy juggernaut against the state has been gathering steam for years.

In 2018, the News Letter ran a ground-breaking series of essays entitled Stop the Legacy Scandal. Contributors included politicians, victims, retired generals, former RUC commanders, academics, lawyers, commentators, churchmen, and others.

They tried to explain in detail some of the issue that had caused this imbalance, and some of the problems with the Stormont House Agreement plan to tackle legacy.

The series was largely ignored by the rest of the media and to this day there are broadcast panel discussions which only include supporters of the contentious Stormont House plan.

In the coming days some of the profound flaws with this new government plan will come under scrutiny.

But we need to be clear: for years there has been movement in legacy towards a terrorist view of the past, and there has been very little protest about it.

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor