The Government’s decision to attempt a de facto amnesty from prosecutions for killings committed during the Troubles has, predictably enough, angered all sides in Northern Ireland.
Unionists are outraged that the perpetrators of some of the IRA’s worst outrages will face not even the spectre of justice. The families of those killed by security forces personnel feel much the same. The Irish Government is threatening court action.
But this probably doesn’t matter, because although Brandon Lewis has introduced it, in terms of Conservative politics this policy is probably not really about Northern Ireland at all.
Instead, it’s basically the result of a much more general campaign by Tory MPs to protect the troops from so-called ‘tank-chasers’, lawyers who profit by prosecuting allegations against British soldiers. It became a scandal which culminated in Phil Shiner, “once the most feted human rights lawyer in the country“, was struck off in the face of professional misconduct charges. His firm had spent millions of pounds of public money bringing thousands of cases, none of which stuck.
When ministers moved to insulate ex-servicemen against the threat of potentially vexatious prosecutions brought long after the fact, the Northern Ireland Office excluded cases pertaining to the Troubles. It is that exemption which, by circuitous means, ends if these proposals go ahead.
There is a good case for setting limits on prosecuting the military. It is not only a question of justice and due process for individual ex-servicemen, but also a fact that the prospect of getting thrown to the wolves will directly impact the performance of today’s troops on the ground. Arguably this is especially the case in a counter-insurgency theatre such as Northern Ireland was, where the law is pretty much explicitly a front on which the battle is fought.
Such considerations must obviously be balanced against the demands of the peace process. But contra the attitudes of previous Secretaries of State, that is a decision for the Government – indeed, the Prime Minister – to make. The Northern Ireland Office is not a sovereign fiefdom, to set policy as it pleases.
That isn’t the same as saying this move is the right one. Beyond the obvious objections about letting people get away with crimes, it is problematic that the Government has decided to go with a tit-for-tat amnesty for both sides. It creates a false sense of equivalence between the Armed Forces and the IRA, and facilitates republican efforts to rebrand their terrorist campaign as a ‘war’.
On the other hand, there are no novel missteps here. London has been playing into republican hands on that issue ever since it first made the mistake of affording ‘political status’ to prisoners serving time for terror offences. Likewise, Labour’s outrage over the amnesties is all very well but it was Tony Blair who both released IRA prisoners from jail and oversaw the issuing of the so-called ‘comfort letters’, a de facto amnesty that collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.
When Boris Johnson elevated Claire Fox to the peerage, I noted that the cause of Ulster seemed to have thinned in the blood of the modern Tory Party. The shields in the Commons paying tribute to Conservative MPs murdered by republican terrorists did not stop the Prime Minister putting an apologist for their murderers in the House of Lords. Today’s “protect our boys” approach to military prosecutions seems to be a product of the same trend.
Ultimately, the Belfast Agreement has done what Lloyd George’s creation of Stormont did before it: allow mainland politicians to put Northern Ireland out of their minds. As ever, the price of that is paid, one way or another, by Northern Ireland itself.