Monday 21 October 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Shocking bias of Bradley's remarks is further proof the Tories care nothing about the North - it's only on their radar as an obstacle to their Brexit nirvana'

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Does Karen Bradley keep a diary? If she does, I'm convinced she makes Bridget Jones-style entries.

"Dear Diary, I've been a silly sausage and put my foot in it with those scary (cross that out) touchy (cross that out) easily annoyed people in Northern Ireland. Even that nice Simon Thingy from the Republic scolded me over dinner in the Irish Embassy. Prince Charles pretended he didn't know about my teensy weensy gaffe but he gave me such a pointed look during his dull old speech about friendship between the people of the UK and Ireland.

"At least Doddsie still likes me. Phew! Can't afford to fall out with the DUP. But Theresa told me I have to say sorry. Think I'll send out some cute puppy cards with 'hope I'm not in the doghouse'. That should do the trick."

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So, we've had a boot in the face to Irish-British relations at a time when dealings are already on a knife-edge. After the kick came an attempt at fancy footwork - her clarification in case of "misinterpretation" - although it was clear she had advocated a suspension of the rule of law for soldiers, an act of political interference. Finally, a fairly extensive apology followed when the serious damage could no longer be denied.

However, Ms Bradley's mea culpa doesn't repair the shock of her failure to understand that her government is supposed to be impartial. She's sorry, all right - sorry at exposing her stupidity and bias.

Recently, Ms Bradley said she was "slightly scared" of Northern Ireland when she became secretary of state, but Northern Ireland has good cause to be more than slightly scared of her and her party. Suspicions of a state cover-up are not conducive to positive relations between the North's nationalist community and the British government.

To recap, Ms Bradley said killings by members of the security forces were not "crimes", and added: "They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way." That's known as the Nuremburg defence - I was only following orders.

Hers were not the words of someone who appreciates she must represent all sides of the Northern community. Nor of someone who recognises the dangers of bypassing the legal system. Rather, they sounded like the words not just of a minister, but a government convinced that absolution should be granted to its security forces in every set of circumstances. This communicates to nationalists that their lives don't count - another reason for them to believe they have no stake in Northern Ireland.

Her comments are all the more inflammatory because of the context. On Thursday, the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is due to tell relatives of 14 unarmed youths and men shot dead by soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 whether any of their killers will face charges.

Now consider the implications of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland suggesting no soldier ever acts unlawfully when he pulls a trigger. Add to that some remarks from Theresa May around the same time. She said in the House of Commons that Britain's Ministry of Defence would be publishing plans to ensure former servicemen were not prosecuted unfairly.

Taken in tandem, they sound like an amnesty for security forces. But if an amnesty is on the cards, fairness dictates it should be granted to all parties in the conflict - republican and loyalist paramilitaries, soldiers and police alike. And, indeed, some families might accept an amnesty in exchange for a reconciliation forum where they'd hear the truth of what happened, at least. But Britain is opposed to such a platform because it has dirty secrets from the Troubles.

Some more context is necessary. Elements of unionism believe a one-sided approach to legacy issues is being taken, considering most of the killings were carried out by paramilitaries.

As first minister, Arlene Foster used her position to hold back finance for a number of Troubles-related inquests. The DUP says there is a "witch hunt" against security forces' veterans.

Giving comfort to this view, Mrs May has claimed that only armed forces or law enforcement personnel are being investigated. But a BBC report has found that of 1,188 killings under examination by the PSNI Legacy Investigations, 530 are cases attributed to republicans, 354 to security forces, 271 to loyalists and 33 to unknown elements.

Some say veterans such as the Bloody Sunday paratroopers are elderly and unfit to stand trial. But people should answer for their actions irrespective of age. Perhaps the argument should centre on whether or not they are fit to serve prison sentences, if convicted, but that's for a court to decide and not a political party.

There have been two apologies for the behaviour of British soldiers during the Troubles. In 2010, following the Saville Report, then prime minister David Cameron said what they did was "unjustified and unjustifiable".

The following year, the Ministry of Defence apologised to the elderly mother of 12-year-old Majella O'Hare, shot twice in the back by a soldier with a machine gun as she walked past a Co Armagh checkpoint on her way to church in 1976.

A long-delayed coroner's inquest has opened into the Ballymurphy killings - known as Belfast's Bloody Sunday - in which 11 unarmed civilians died at the hands of paratroopers in 1971. The pattern is familiar: unrest on the streets, soldiers deployed, unarmed civilians fired on - and when people go to their assistance they are shot, too. An investigation clears the soldiers and the dead are denounced as terrorists.

Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Majella O'Hare and similar stories are why Ms Bradley looks like a throwback secretary of state. The suspicion is she was gratifying the prejudices, not of the DUP, but her own party which holds the military in high esteem. Mr Cameron felt obliged to preface his Bloody Sunday apology with a panegyric to the armed forces.

It's yet more proof that the Tories care nothing for Northern Ireland - which is only on their radar as an obstacle to their Brexit nirvana. Some of them appear to believe the Good Friday Agreement is expendable, too.

The Troubles were a devastating time. And while the bombs have stopped, not everyone has had a chance to heal. Some public setting is needed for victims which will, at least, acknowledge their losses. In many cases, bereaved families just want it known and accepted that their loved ones were innocents whose lives mattered.

If Ms Bradley is sincere in her apology, she should use her role to advance the case for a reconciliation forum. Otherwise, it smacks of "Dear Diary, oops - but never mind. It's only Northern Ireland."

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Irish Independent

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