Over 3,600 people died in the troubled era that scarred this island for some 3 decades. The wave of violence that consumed so many lives in the North has left a dark legacy for an entire generation and in particular on the shoulders of the families of those who lost their lives in the troubles. Out of that bleak period he Good Friday agreement emerges as a shining light. For the first time since 1920 the entire island voted as one, overwhelmingly in favour of moving beyond the arid bloody battles of the past and towards a shared future.
However that agreement was not a free pass to the individuals who choose the route of violence that terrorised the North over 30 years nor was it a general moment of collective amnesia.
Yesterday’s announcement by the Attorney General of Northern Ireland John Harkin that all prosecutions of troubles related crimes committed prior to 1998 should cease was a shocking act of indifference to bereaved families and their inherent right to truth and justice.
Beyond criticisms of the constitutionality of such an action or its viability in the face of international law, it is a basic fundamental tenet of common decency, the very bedrock of society, that victims deserve the truth.
Yesterday’s policy kite flown by the Attorney General denies that basic claim to justice. It comes at a deeply unfortunate time when the Haas talks are tasked with setting out a coherent framework to confront the myriad of issue surrounding the past. Its launch would also appear to be co-ordinated with a PSNI report lamenting the costs of investigating cold cases and the burden of resources employed by the Historical Investigations team. I sincerely hope that it is not softening the ground up for a move away from the state’s obligation to uphold the rule of law which exists regardless of timing.
The Attorney General has called for amnesty legislation to be enacted in Westminster to encompass the UK and advocated that mirror legislation be pushed through here in the Oireachtas. In effect this would mean that grievous crimes perpetrated here such as the Disappeared that continue to languish in a limbo of terror or roving unaccountable British army death squads as uncovered by BBC Panorama investigators would go unmarked by the state.
The past on this island is touched with sadness and tragedy. It represents a grave challenge to all of us who are working towards building a future free from the sectarian passions and violence that tainted the lives of previous generations. But this does not mean running way from difficult questions. It does not mean that all victims were the same and that all who lived through those decades share the blame.
In reality there were those who took up the gun and resorted to ruthless violence for their own ends while there was amajority who sought peaceful means to achieve legitimate aims.
Abandoning justice for victims is an abdication of our moral and civic responsibility to those who endured during those grim days. It is a betrayal of our duty to the men and women who were always committed to peaceful means. The history of the troubles cannot be left to those who bloodied their hands in it on either side of the conflict, be they perpetrators of State violence or paramilitaries on either side.
I trust that the Minister will rule out any such mirror legislation being enacted in this jurisdiction and will endeavour to within his remit to ensure it is not promulgated in Northern Ireland.