by Kevin Meagher
Sabres are the only weapons that have never been decommissioned in Northern Ireland. The reward for Peter Robinson rattling his, has been the creation of a “judge-led” review of how the British Government has been dealing with Irish republican “On-The-Runs” for the past decade.
This follows the collapse of the Old Bailey trial last month against John Downey, charged with the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982 in which four soldiers were killed. It brought to light the scheme by which 180 or so republicans like Downey who had evaded the authorities were sent letters confirming, in effect, that they would not be prosecuted on returning home to Northern Ireland.
For republicans, this is merely an extension of the prisoner release programme which took place after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and no big deal. For Robinson, it amounts to a secret deal letting untried killers off the hook – and Ulster unionism doesn’t let any chance to yell “sell out” pass it by.
Yet what the government has conceded is a long way short of the “full judicial review” (a la Lord Saville’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday) that Robinson initially called for last Wednesday. According to the published terms of reference, the as yet unnamed judge will be tasked with producing “a full public account of the operation and extent” of the policy for dealing with On the Runs and to “determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors”.
So far, so anodyne; but the third aim is incredibly badly-scoped, asking the judge “to make recommendations as necessary on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the Inquiry.” This seems to be an open invitation to speculate about whether the policy of soft-pedalling on pursuing former IRA suspects is right or not.
This is entirely pointless. Dwelling on the political, legal and moral accommodations that have been made – on all sides – tells us nothing. The odd bout of theatrical amnesia aside, Northern Ireland’s politicians are all big boys and girls and know that all sorts of deals have been made to get this show on the road – and to keep it there.
This last week has simply revealed part of the internal wiring of Northern Ireland’s peace process in all its cold, functional reality. This particular bit – a go-slow in bringing prosecutions against ONRs – is, quite simply, the price for guaranteeing the cessation of the IRA’s campaign, the decommissioning of its weapons and the embrace of constitutional politics (given released prisoners and OTRs like Downing are among the peace process’s biggest supporters). It is a price that should be paid willingly.
The inquiry report is expected by the end of May, conveniently timed, it seems, to avoid the European elections. This allows Robinson, ever mindful of the threat he faces from sizable elements within Ulster unionism that would happily rip-up the Good Friday Agreement, to get the political credit for bashing republicans and the British Government (unionists have an odd relationship with the Mother state).
Yet the broader issue remains: how does Northern Ireland deal with the past? This was, of course, the focus of talks led by US diplomat Richard Haas, which broke apart without agreement before Christmas. The usual catch-all remedy is establishing some sort of truth and reconciliation process.
However, the prospect of an ‘Oprah-ification’ of Northern Ireland’s Troubles seems an unlikely bet, for temperamental as much as political reasons. The process may have worked in post-apartheid South Africa, with a new state essentially replacing an old, discredited one; but British politics has been at pains throughout the Troubles to maintain a veneer of ‘business as usual’. Ministers do not want to cast an unflinching light on the murkier abuses carried out by the British state in its back yard. Not that the hard men of loyalism and republicanism are much given to public emoting either. The whole thing would descend into unbridgeable rancour.
Instead, Northern Ireland’s history will continue to be bottled up. Its politicians energies’ are therefore better spent trying not to let the past upend the present; much like the approach the Spanish took after their civil war. Some things are best left unsaid and the price of continuing peace may well leave some injustices unresolved. There are simply too many arch reminders of a past that upsets the families and friends of those who were killed or maimed, as this last week has amply demonstrated.
But this process of moving on would be a whole lot easier if politicians like Robinson didn’t keep picking at the scabs.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut