Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Not everyone will like John Larkin's radical call to halt Troubles cases... but it can't be ignored

Attorney General John Larkin outlined his radical proposals to deal with the past in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
Attorney General John Larkin outlined his radical proposals to deal with the past in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph.

John Larkin is speaking at the moment of maximum impact, when Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan are in Belfast gathering opinions for their review of flags, parading and the past.

His words will come as a shock to the political system, and not just because he is the Executive's main legal adviser.

His views represent a break from the conventional wisdom and also from what he has said previously. It is clearly something he has thought long and hard about.

In recent years he has been seen as a champion of the inquest system, and has even suggested that inquests could operate in parallel with some form of truth commission. In 2011, for instance, he predicted that Coroners Courts would probably be "front and centre of the way in which we explore our past".

Then John Leckey, the Belfast coroner, accused Mr Larkin of exceeding his powers in pushing for inquests into Troubles-era killings to be held and information disclosed at them.

In February the High Court found that it was Mr Lecky, not Mr Larkin, who had gone beyond his powers when it ordered that up to 21 inquests Mr Larkin had ordered should now go ahead despite Mr Leckey's objections.

Just months after this vindication, Mr Larkin has opposed both inquests and a truth commission as vehicles for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. It is a remarkable volte face and must have taken some courage.

Mr Larkin now sees another way of doing things and argues eloquently for it. He points out that inquiries into the Troubles, including inquests, are becoming increasingly time consuming and expensive. They are, he points out, subject to "a law of diminishing returns" with less and less chance of a successful prosecution for events that occurred a quarter century or more ago.

Similar points about cost and chances of success have been made by others at the centre of the legal system.

Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory, who was a defence and human rights lawyer, recently highlighted the issue. Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, and his predecessor Sir Hugh Orde have both complained that the cost of policing the past drained their ability to police the present.

After years of expensive inquiries and litigation, many people will agree with Mr Larkin's appeal to draw a legal and political line under the Troubles. The past is now, he hints, more properly a matter for the historians.

Others will violently disagree. Amnesty International, for instance, believes in pursuing the legal route relentlessly and many victims' groups want to keep the prospect of prosecution alive.

Mr Larkin's ideas won't be swallowed whole by everyone, but, because of his position and experience, they can't be ignored.

If they are rejected out of hand, that would put a question mark over whether he will seek, or be granted, another term as Attorney General.

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