Hyde Park trial saga only highlights unprincipled nature of peace deals
The images related to some atrocities seem to survive the passing of time. Omagh, Enniskillen, Brighton, Canary Wharf and Hyde Park, are accompanied by particularly vivid memories for most people.
The bombing of the mounted horse guard at Hyde Park because of its iconic touristic connections with the queen and Buckingham Palace was a particularly memorable event. The carnage caused by the bomb on a bright sunny day in London was worldwide news. In Provo language, it was a "spectacular" with the power to attract maximum coverage and political attention. The dismay and upset at the collapse of the trial for this act of terrorism is wholly understandable.
Every now and then we are reminded of what we actually lived through and, indeed, at times normalised for 30 years on these islands. The term "Troubles" hardly captures the grotesque violence and personal injury experienced by thousands of people. The undeniable success of the peace process and political settlement encompassed by the Good Friday Agreement can unfortunately eclipse the detail of the horror unleashed by the IRA campaign of violence.
As a minister who represented the Irish Government in the Good Friday negotiations, news of this collapsed trial regarding this 1982 act of terrorism prompted mixed feelings of dread and responsibility. I acknowledge that it was a unique privilege to participate in the talks over a five-year period of transformative politics in Anglo-Irish relations. But along with that honour is a crushing sense of responsibility that the terms of the settlement were at a very high cost to ethical democratic values.
In the cause of making progress towards ending the conflict, democratic politicians of all parties on the island and in the UK made significant moral compromises. At times it required the suspension of our critical faculties. Justice itself was unravelled by the early release of prisoners, in this jurisdiction even in advance of the Agreement. The prisoner-release programme under the Agreement was perhaps the most difficult issue for people to accept on all sides. Essentially, amnesties were being granted before human forgiveness had emerged in the community. It was a forced closure and erasure of justice for many thousands of victims affected either directly or indirectly.
Many of the administrative and political and even constitutional changes brought about by the Agreement and settlement were broadly acceptable to the population. Who can disagree with equality, a reformed police service acceptable to both communities, reform of the justice system and a power-sharing Executive? These issues, although controversial and hard won in the negotiations were almost waved through in the end. Even Constitutional change to Articles 2 and 3, having notionally dogged progress for decades, was agreed without a whimper and mandated strongly in the referendum.
But the non-resolution of crimes and murders committed by actors on both sides has remained an open wound for many people. There are over 3,000 unsolved murders relating to the period of the conflict. There are some whose bodies have never been recovered.
It now transpires that by a "secret" deal between the Blair government and Sinn Fein, IRA activists who were on the run were absolved from prosecution, not by law but by administrative procedure, a practice that has been continued by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. It is in this context that the trial of John Downey, former IRA activist, accused of the Hyde Park murders has collapsed, thereby disclosing the existence of up to 200 such "letters of comfort".
None of this was news to the Irish Government. In fact, Irish diplomats and officials would have been advocates on the issue; it was an unrelenting item on the Sinn Fein agenda from 1998. When it proved impossible for the British to legislate for it in 2005, a side deal was done.
The whole saga illustrates the fallibility and the unprincipled nature of the politics of conflict resolution. The British government defended the deal as necessary to get the negotiations to succeed. Sinn Fein basically couldn't see what all the fuss was about, going so far as to welcome the collapse of the trial even though the accused received the letter by mistake.
Peter Robinson's righteous anger was understandable. The DUP are newcomers to the often dodgy concessions that brought us to where we are. Making peace requires deals, often secret. But Robinson should have been briefed on this when he formed a government with Sinn Fein. Yet by his own admission, had he and Ian Paisley known, they would not have formed a government. By having a tantrum and forcing a judicial inquiry into the scheme, he has spared himself a political humiliation.
All this shows that dealing with "the past" in line with Haass is no longer postponable. The annual pilgrimage to the White House for Patrick's Day by the Northern Irish party leaders is an opportunity in this regard.