It appears the American diplomat, Richard Haass, has put ‘immunity’ from prosecution at the heart of talks about how to deal with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This seems to suppose that there would be a suspension of investigations, inquiries, inquests or civil actions.
Any such plan needs to address two very important questions, if it is to be feasible. What does it achieve for victims of unlawful violence and what does it achieve for society more widely?
Quite simply, it is not fair to ask people to relinquish their right to justice if they do not receive something constructive in return. If any form of immunity allows the perpetrators of violence to be let off the hook and to peddle a version of history which celebrates their crimes, then it shouldn’t be considered an option.
As a bare minimum, victims of violence deserve the unvarnished facts about what happened to their loved ones. That is ordinarily what we mean by ‘truth recovery’.
Facts are worth a lot less, though, if perpetrators are allowed to push the idea that their actions were justified, or to glorify the terrorist movements of which they usually formed a part. For that reason it is important that all the main participants in any process sign up to a ‘statement of wrongs’, which acknowledges that every unlawful, violent act that took place during the Troubles was wrong and absolutely unjustified.
It is not worth compromising our attempts to punish brutal crimes, if it doesn’t result in setting society on a very different course. Apart from making sure that the mechanics of any form of immunity are right, we should be having a serious conversation about how we can tie that process into ensuring that the type of violence which we saw in Northern Ireland for over 30 years can never be repeated.
For example, do we want to grant immunity without guaranteeing that our children are educated together in the future? Do we want to grant immunity without a realistic expectation that shared social housing is the norm and there are no ‘no go’ areas for anybody to live, work or socialise?
Those might like seem like tough, or even unrealistic conditions, but we’re talking about an enormous concession to people who carried out horrendous crimes. It is hugely important that any ‘immunity’ deal is tied to real, lasting progress for everyone in Northern Ireland and that the incredible sacrifice of victims is both recognised and rewarded.
Otherwise, frankly, the moral trade-off isn’t worth it.