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‘Amnesties’ just fuel the embers of loss – we must face our old horrors

John Downing


Irene Connolly whose mother Joan was killed in the Ballymurphy massacre reacts to the announcement. Photo: Charles McQuillan

Irene Connolly whose mother Joan was killed in the Ballymurphy massacre reacts to the announcement. Photo: Charles McQuillan

Irene Connolly whose mother Joan was killed in the Ballymurphy massacre reacts to the announcement. Photo: Charles McQuillan

There is no statute of limitations on grief, on injustice, or the refusal to give the bereaved information about contested violent deaths.

The North’s past horrors are a constant shadow which drags upon efforts to strengthen the fragile peace and frame a hopeful future.

The British government’s proposal to end all Troubles prosecutions has been widely criticised on all sides, from the DUP across to Sinn Féin. Interestingly, the older paramilitaries, on nationalist and unionist sides, are not so immediately dismissive because it has potential benefit for old comrades still being pursued by the police and prosecution authorities.

Northern Ireland minister, Brandon Lewis has confirmed the proposed statute of limitations would end all prosecutions – for British military as well as republican and loyalist paramilitaries – up to April 1998.

According to UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the move will as allow the North to “draw a line under the Troubles”. But it would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions.

We wonder what impact these proposals will have upon cases currently in train in the legal system. These are estimated at 40 legacy inquests currently in process, up to 1,000 civil cases, and around eight ongoing criminal prosecutions.

Better known cases in the latter end of things include the prosecution of John Downey for the murder of UDR soldiers Alfred Johnston and James Eames in 1972. There is also the case former soldier Dennis Hutchings, now aged 80, charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in 1974, whose trial is expected in October this year.

Cunningham was a 27-year old who had learning difficulties when he was shot in the back as he fled from a British army patrol led by the accused on the outskirts of Benburb in June 1974. This case, leaving aside more emotive ones from the January 1972  Bloody Sunday killings and the recently revisited August 1971 Ballymurphy killings in Belfast, give us a strong flavour of what remains very much at issue.

On Wednesday, Mr Lewis, also spoke about a new truth recovery body and an oral history initiative. The UK government is pledged to consult the North’s political parties and victim groups before introducing enabling legislation this autumn.

“We’ve come to the view that this is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation. It is, in reality, a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are,” Mr Lewis told the London parliament.

Political parties and bereaved families rightly said the move is a “de facto amnesty”. It adds insult to the long-festering injury to the bereaved remembering innocent loved ones.

In a rare semblance of unity, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the proposals were “wrong for many, many reasons”. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said it “would be rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law”. The North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill accused the UK of introducing an amnesty “to protect state forces from their ‘dirty role’ in Ireland”.

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And there will inevitably be legal challenges. Relatives of one of the 10 people killed by soldiers in Ballymurphy have vowed to go to the courts.

Quite simply, the UK PM is yet again playing to the home audience, guaranteeing “our boys”, most by now aged in their 70s and 80s, freedom from “vexatious prosecutions”.

What a loaded term. Try telling your local court you are victim of an egregious, or vexatious, legal process and see how you get on.

The reality is that the law needs to operate independently without fear or favour. The great lapse of time is of course an obstacle – but such impediments are there to be overcome.

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