Friday 18 April 2014

David Quinn: It's right to ask if justice for victims of the Troubles will cost too much

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin, who suggested prosecutions should end for killings related to the Troubles and committed before the Good Friday Agreement.

The Troubles always loom large when leaders of Britain and Ireland meet

Is it possible to pay too high a price for justice? That is the basic question we are confronted by after Northern Ireland's Attorney General, John Larkin, called for an end to prosecutions for Troubles-related killings before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The fact that he is referring only to Troubles-related killings tells its own story. He is not suggesting that 'civilian' crime committed before that date should not be prosecuted. He is putting Troubles-related killings in their own special category and asking that for them the normal rules of justice be suspended.

Highly respected, thoughtful people such as Nuala O'Loan have attacked Larkin's suggestion. She and barrister Richard Harvey, who was involved in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, "unreservedly" condemned it.

They said his suggestion "would cause untold distress to bereaved families and seriously undermine prospects for building confidence in the administration of justice, in particular in cases where there is evidence of potential collusion between elements in the security services and paramilitaries".

I suppose we can try to imagine what the reaction would have been if a senior government figure in the South had announced that we should not have investigations into abuse of children by clergy, that we should not prosecute offending clergy and that victims of abuse should not be given the chance to tell their stories to a statutory body.

We know what would have happened. There would have been total uproar.

Coincidentally, Larkin made his remark in the same week it was announced that President Higgins will be making the first ever official visit by an Irish head of state to Britain next year.

Inevitably, the years of the Troubles, and indeed the tangled, centuries-old relation between our two islands always looms large in the background whenever leaders of Britain and Ireland meet.

When Queen Elizabeth came in 2011, in her main address she spoke of the "regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss". But there was no apology and very few people expected one or wanted one.

Why not? After all, the centuries of British rule here inflicted many injustices on the Irish people, so why did we not demand an apology? Once upon a time we would have demanded an apology and one of the chief reasons a British monarch could not come here was because they wouldn't have been minded to do so and British public opinion wouldn't have let them.

But when the Queen did come here we collectively decided that for the sake of finally normalising relations between our two countries, we should not expect an apology from her on behalf of the British nation.

We were willing to let the past belong to the past.

John Larkin is obviously seeking something similar. Obviously the victims of past injustices on both sides have every right to seek redress. They have every right to demand that the State find out who was responsible for the injustices inflicted during the Troubles and to demand that those responsible be prosecuted.

They have just as much right as the victims of clerical sex abuse. But there is a difference and it is this: delivering justice to the victims of clerical sex abuse could be accomplished without damaging peaceful relations within society as a whole. However, there is every chance that by insisting on righting every wrong done in the past in Northern Ireland we would exacerbate tensions between the two communities just as insisting the Queen apologise for past British rule would only increase tensions between Britain and Ireland.

Other societies have terrible pasts, much worse pasts in fact than this country but they do not insist on constantly raking over their pasts no matter how much justice would seem to demand it.

Monstrous things happened in the former Soviet Union but when the Soviet Union fell, how many of those responsible for those monstrous things were brought to justice? There never was a systematic attempt to hold to account those who committed crimes on behalf of the Soviet State.

Russia decided that it was better not to go down that road. It decided it was better not to deal with the enormous "legacy" issues of the past.

If he was alive today it would be interesting to find out what Gordon Wilson's attitude to the legacy issue in the North would be. Famously, he forgave his daughter's killers only hours after she was blown up in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. He would have been perfectly entitled instead to demand that her killers be brought to justice. His act of forgiveness gave him enormous moral authority.

What must now be decided is whether demanding justice for past crimes would come at the expense of peaceful relations in the North. John Larkin obviously believes the answer is 'yes'. He should not be condemned for voicing that thought out loud.

Irish Independent

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