Amnesty a line in the sand? It’s not even close
If we know anything about the Johnson government in the UK, they are not great at sticking to agreements or taking the views of the devolved nations seriously. The recent statement by the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, proposing new legislation to enforce a statute of limitations for all conflict-related violations in Northern Ireland fits this mould.
In July 2019, following a 15-month consultation on the legacy proposal in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) of 2014 agreed by all political parties, the British Government committed to its full implementation. Two years later, it is now proposing to pull the SHA apart.
The recent proposals remove a focus on justice and investigation, favouring information recovery and storytelling under an undefined banner of reconciliation. All of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, the Irish government, civil society organisations and most victims’ groups are heavily critical of what amounts to an amnesty for conflict-era offences. Yet, the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and especially victims of both state and non-state violence, seem to matter little.
Ostensibly, Northern Ireland victims are less important than a Tory manifesto pledge to stop so-called “vexatious” legal cases against former British soldiers, even if the price is also a paramilitary amnesty.
Yet, the actual case for amnesty in Lewis’ statement is rather flimsy.
Firstly, Lewis points out that criminal investigations are increasingly unlikely to deliver in court. We know as time passes this is not incorrect. But because justice is unlikely, should prosecutions be abandoned? Could we imagine doing the same for other crimes such as rape because it has a low conviction rate? Choosing to abandon prosecution is not a logistical issue but a political one.
Secondly, it is stated that the current system is not working. But there is no current system. It is a mishmash of processes. No systematic and over-arching attempt has been made to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, despite a set of agreed proposals being put…