Amnesty for All, Satisfaction for Few: The plan to ‘draw a line’ beneath Northern Ireland’s Troubles

Author: Lachlan Forster

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

January 30th, 2022, marked the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’, in which a peaceful protest within the Northern Irish city of Derry descended into tragedy after soldiers of the British Parachute Regiment opened fire upon an unarmed crowd, hitting 26 and killing 14. It’s near unfathomable to think that such an event could have occurred within any part of Ireland, respected the world-over for its culture, conduct and peaceful demeanour. But this shocking episode in the region’s history is merely a single chapter in the story of the Troubles, a decades long conflict within the Ulster province of the island, known as Northern Ireland, and its struggle to find a united national identity that could bridge the province’s people. The two dominant factions in the Troubles go by many names; Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Republican, British and Irish, but these two broad demographics could very soon be levelled in the eyes of the law, in regards to their culpability in the crimes perpetrated by both sides during this conflict.

Attempting to ‘draw a line under the Troubles’, legislation has been proposed to the British House of Commons. Such legislation would place a statute of limitations on any crimes committed between the conflict’s beginnings in the late 1960’s, up to its end with the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. This proposal would effectively give amnesty to all parties who undertook any action that could be defined as illegal or questionable, applying to unionists, republicans and military personal from the United Kingdom alike. Further terms of this proposal states that legacy inquests and civil actions would also be ended, meaning that no further investigations or compensation claims could be made regarding damages or victims of troubles related violence, terrorism, or suppression.

Although well meaning in its intention, the proposed legislation has been met with backlash from every facet of the wide crowd it seeks to provide amnesty for.

Proposals of amnesty for those who contributed their efforts towards violent struggle during periods of upheaval are not unfounded. The most famous and effective enactment of such legislature was the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ within South Africa, established by Nelson Mandela to record testimony and shed light on the crimes of the apartheid system. This commission had the ability to grant amnesty, and complete protection from prosecution for former political offences, to those who had propped up the apartheid system, as well as to those who had committed crimes whilst aiming to take down said governmental framework. While not entirely without blemish, this act of amnesty not only ‘generated a great deal of information if not truth’, but was also a massive contributor towards ‘reconciliation in South Africa’ , ‘moving the country towards a more democratic future.’ So, if such a proposal could work to heal the deep wounds left by the apartheid system within South Africa, what stands in the way of such a proposal working to put the troubles in the past once and for all?

South Africa’s reconciliation and subsequent amnesty grants centred on the fact that the system of apartheid and the majority of the groups that fought for it were a thing of the past. As Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress took power within the state, it was evident that his political faction had ‘won’ the apartheid struggle. But the troubles did not have such a definitive victory for any party. The Good Friday agreement was a negotiated settlement between every party, hashed out between the British crown, members of the republican Sinn Féin, and representatives from the Democratic Unionist Party. Each entity had to make concessions for peace, but none of them ceased to exist, continuing to campaign for their respective political ideals, but with an agreement that Northern Irish politics should centre on civility rather than violence. The struggle of amnesty with these conditions is that as each character from the troubles continues to exist in the modern day, they still maintain their actions within the conflict were unquestionably just, demanding justice for those who suffered on their side whilst also conveniently turning a blind eye to their own party’s poor conduct. A condition of amnesty in South Africa was an admission of guilt for crimes, asserting that in order to achieve forgiveness in the post-minority rule nation, one had to admit fault. But this ask will not be met by any of the parties within Northern Irish politics, demonstrated by an overwhelming backlash to Westminster’s amnesty proposal from all five major political parties in Ulster, victim groups, families of the deceased and British servicemen. All of them have rightful cause to be angry and hurt by what happened during the troubles, but the notion that they need to be forgiven is completely foreign. Their justifications are as follows:

Republicans: The republican cause in Northern Ireland was the most passionately supported independence movement in the world due to widely publicised events of suppression that grabbed headlines, carried out against the minority Catholic community in Ulster. The aforementioned Bloody Sunday followed riots in 1969, that demanded civil rights for families being forcibly evicted by Protestant landlords and communities. Subsequent decades would also see hunger strikes within prisons by convicts who asserted that they had been denied proper trials and the human rights that detainees are entitled too, including mail from loved ones and time outside their cells. Maeve McLaughlin, manager of the Bloody Sunday Trust, explained that many Catholics in Northern Ireland ‘can’t just draw a line and forget’ the oppression they and their families experienced, and that ‘putting the truth out there’ was essential to promote the suffering of her community during this period. The latter quote refers to the legislation’s barring of legacy inquests, that would end the search for answers for the families of those who lost their lives in uncertain circumstances during the period, with said families being left to rely on the conscious of those who were granted amnesty to come forward and confess to their crimes. These points are backed by Sinn Féin, the Republican Party of Northern Ireland who wholeheartedly maintain that those who maligned Catholics should be prosecuted. Furthermore, Sinn Fèin successfully campaigned for Bloody Sunday to be recognised as an unlawful act of aggression, resulting in British Prime Minister David Cameron apologising for the event in 2010 on behalf of the crown, stating Great Britain was ‘deeply sorry’. But Sinn Féin was not a helpless victim throughout the troubles, and their passionate campaigning for the martyrdom of the republican cause is undermined by their paramilitaries own actions during the conflict.

Unionists: Of the 3,500 murders during the troubles, 60% were committed by republican paramilitaries, the primary of which was the notorious Provisional Irish Republican Army, or IRA. The majority of the organisation’s targets were unionists and British military servicemen who had been stationed on the streets of Northern Ireland. Frequently however, their actual victims were innocents who had become unknowingly caught in the crossfire of the IRA’s campaign of terrorism. For example, the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, a member of the royal family and distinguished military serviceman, was further muddied by the deaths of the Lord’s 14-year-old grandson and a 15-year-old boy who had been caught up in the bombing. Whilst this case centres on the royal family, situations of this creed were common for unionists in Northern Ireland, who felt they had to protect their communities from the radical, and often messy IRA. Skepticism around paramilitaries seeking reunification of Ireland unfortunately contributed to farther persecution towards Catholics, as the Protestant population of Northern Ireland turned the troubles into an issue of patriotism; the North was for protestants who wanted to maintain their joint Irishness and Britishness, and if the catholic population were not happy with the conditions of the region’s existence, they had an entire republic to the south they could populate. This segregationist logic underpins the unionist issues with the proposed amnesty legislator, namely that those seeking to cause political disruption within a purposefully autonomous region of Ireland, should be brought to justice for their murder of innocents, not excused on the grounds of having a political cause.

British Armed Forces: The sight of servicemen strolling the streets of Belfast and Londonderry was commonplace during the troubles, as the military was instructed to stay alert for threats from the IRA and keep the peace between the unionists and republicans. Of course, this often met with mixed results; some days the peace could be kept easily, and the people of Northern Ireland were free to go about their business, other days the negligence of the armed forces could result in a situation like Bloody Sunday. The primary issue that most armed forces personnel have with the amnesty legislature is that it implies wrongdoing on the part of the military, with most soldiers having simply been assigned to Northern Ireland and kept the peace effectively. This sentiment is backed by the group, ‘Families Acting for Innocent Relatives’, an organisation promoting the prosecution of terrorists for their murder of innocents, which stated they ‘do not wish to see the perpetrators of heinous crimes seen on an equal parallel as police officers and soldiers who were trying to maintain peace at a time of rioting and mayhem in Northern Ireland’. However, the issue with this stance is not the perceived guilt of the average serviceman, but rather the culpability of the higher command in providing weapons and support to unionist paramilitary groups in an attempt to combat the IRA. In other terms, the commanders and generals of the British army lowered themselves to the IRA’s standard in combatting their messy form of rebellion with an equally hazardous and unfocused violent response, leading to the maiming and deaths of further innocent Northern Irish citizens.

To simplify this situation, it can be said that each party from the troubles wants to see justice for their own that had been harmed or killed during the conflict, but do not want to admit to any wrongdoing on their part and believe that their own violence should be excused on account of their perceived politically valid cause. All parties take issue with the legislature, none want to forgive, and all want justice. As most things in politics are, the answer to what should happen with this issue of the continuing legal status of the troubles is wrapped in a paradox.

The notion of amnesty is a frustrating one, as most of us would maintain that people should be punished for their crimes and said punishment should not be beholden to a ‘use by’ date. Furthermore, some courts have found that amnesty laws violate fundamental constitutional rights within most first world nations, including ‘the rights to life, liberty and judicial protection’, and imply that crime is allowed so long as it is done for politically murky reasons, and you keep your guilt a secret past the statute of limitations. But, as the troubles pass further into history, and those with a firsthand memory of the conflict grow older, it becomes evident that something must be done to put the rivalry between Protestants and Catholics into the past, continuing towards a united Northern Irish community. No one is asking victims’ families or veterans of the conflict to forgive those responsible for heinous crimes, but the blanket amnesty agreement instead seeks to create a level playing field.  This acknowledges that the prospect of innocence will likely bring about answers to the unsolved cases of death and violence through convenient means, and place both communities on an even level within society, delivering the statement that no one in the modern day is any longer responsible for the atrocities of the past, and the era of the troubles.

To acquit each side of this conflict is not to deny justice and proper remembrance to those lost, but an effort to rebuild Northern Irish society. This would free the two communities, separated for so long by mutual blame and prejudice, from the branding of being responsible for the atrocities of the troubles. Perhaps this deal is not the proper manner of going about this, and all interested parties certainly need to be consulted on the matter. But with nearly a quarter of a century passed from the end of the conflict, it is certainly time to draw a line beneath the troubles, and that will require forgiveness in any manifestation.

Image Credits: Barbey, Bruno. ‘NORTHERN IRELAND. Londonderry. 1971. Street fighting against British soldiers’ [image]. Available at:  https://historycollection.com/40-photographs-troubles-northern-ireland-conflict/

Bibliography:

BBC. ‘Plan to end all NI Troubles prosecutions confirmed’. July 14, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-57829037.

Gibson, James L. ‘The Contributions from Truth to Reconciliation: Lessons from South Africa’. Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 50, no. 3 (June 2006): 409-432. Doi:  https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002706287115.

Cameron, David. ‘The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on the findings of the Bloody Sunday report’. Speech, House of Commons of the United Kingdom, Westminster, Great Britain, June 15, 2010.  

Webber, Jude.‘Amnesty Row clouds Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary in Northern Ireland’. Financial Times, January 29 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/a54c3f33-7924-4ad9-b82a-2d91f6584948.

Sutton, Malcom. ‘An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland’. Ulster University Cain Archive. Published November 13 2007. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/sutton/tables/Status.html.

Roht-Arriaza, Naomi and Gibson, Lauren. ‘The Developing Jurisprudence on Amnesty’. Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 20, no. 4 (1998): 843-885. Doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/762791.

Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry. The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland. Bloomsbury Academic: London, 1996.

Bosi, Lorenzo. ‘Explaining Pathways to Armed Activism in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, 1969-1972’. Social Science History Vol. 36, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 347-390. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S014555320001186X.

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