Amnesty call not just brave but logical in post-Agreement North
Published 26/11/2013 | 20:19
When I heard Northern Ireland's attorney general John Larkin's call for an end to all prosecutions, inquests and public enquiries relating to the Troubles, I instantly thought of what the fictional Sir Humphrey would say in response. "Brave" might be the ambiguous response of the wily civil servant.
Bravery in politics is rare; the tyranny of popularity and electoral survival means few politicians venture into unknown and, in this case, unspeakable territory.
Larkin was not just thinking aloud; he is after all the attorney general and most senior lawyer in Northern Ireland. While unusual for an AG to launch major policy initiatives in the absence of political direction, his entry to the democratic debate on such a "live" topic is not all that surprising.
John Larkin is no shrinking violet. He is an academic and practitioner and his term of office as AG is finite. He claimed his proposal "was not a call for an amnesty but a logical consequence of the Agreement". And as someone who was a participant in that process leading to the Good Friday Agreement, I can identify with that assertion.
Back then, those of us who were negotiators in the talks, wrestled long and hard with those ethical demons about denying justice to victims and foregoing the rule of law.
Like it or not, the concept of amnesty was implicit in the negotiations.
Under the Agreement, the release of hundreds of prisoners, found guilty of the most heinous crimes, was sanctioned and we negotiated with those who had authorised those crimes. Former paramilitaries were subsequently elected to the Assembly and Executive.
Later in the peace process, prosecutions were ruled out when linked to the decommissioning process and the Sentences Act limited the jail terms to two years for those convicted of killings in the Troubles. With the passage of years, forensic problems make prosecutions less likely in the thousands of unresolved cases.
Viewed from this perspective of realism, the hostile response to Larkin's proposals was a tad overplayed. As the chief legal officer in Northern Ireland, it would be surprising if he did not have a considered view on how to deal with unresolved crimes of the Troubles. After all, the "past" is the unfinished business of the peace process which, together with parades and flags, has been outsourced to US diplomat Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan.
The PSNI and the DPP in Northern Ireland have already spoken of the stresses and tensions of policing the past as well as the present; their response to Larkin's statement therefore was less kneejerk. But it was condemned by victims' representatives, human rights groups and former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.
The political response from the parties in Northern Ireland and from the two governments was negative and populist. No one seems in the mood for creative politics these days. Peter Robinson rejected Larkin's call as "unacceptable". Interestingly, former secretary of state Peter Hain described them as "common sense."
There have been earlier attempts to deal with the rights of victims and the quest for closure. Robin Eames and Denis Bradley published a report five years ago now which broadly recommended a Commission to look at unresolved cases, appropriate remembrance, amnesty and a scheme of compensation for all victims. None of this has come to pass, presumably because it was not politically acceptable or deliverable by the Executive in Northern Ireland.
But Basil McCrea, the leader of NI21, the new political party in Northern Ireland, seems to be on the same wavelength as Larkin when it came to dealing with the past and the needs of relatives of victims.
He said, "Such proposals may be painful for many, but victims deserve honesty from their politicians." At the first party conference, he said, "If, as a society, we are forced to relive every act of barbarism, if we continue to report on every atrocity as if it happened yesterday, if we continue to open old wounds, to pick at the scabs of the past, we will never escape our past or heal our community".
The late Fr Alec Reid has been widely eulogised for his tenacity in facilitating the Hume/Adams dialogue in the 1980s when such engagement was politically verboten. When news of the talks leaked, there was a media backlash. John Hume was vilified for his efforts. Nearly 30 years later, that early dialogue and diplomacy brokered by trusted intermediaries like Fr Reid can now be seen as the embryo of our current peace. What was "unacceptable" then turned out to be the right thing to do. It was "brave". It was not popular or particularly principled.
Larkin's suggestion of a de facto amnesty or "stay on prosecutions", however controversial, is out there now. Despite initial hostility, it may prove helpful to progress as we collectively tread over the broken glass of the past.