Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Is sacrificing justice for truth the only solution?

Liam Clarke

Gerry Adams's proposal for an international commission to deal with the Troubles has merit. It could easily be combined with proposals by Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State, for an early release of documents relating to the years of violence.

Mr Adams's suggestion came in the wake of the revelation that three IRA members, including the commander on the day, had spoken to the Smithwick Tribunal into the murder of two senior RUC officers in 1989.

Anyone who has met Judge Peter Smithwick in the course of his investigation will have no doubt of the deep commitment and sharp focus which he has brought to his task.

As the tribunal's opening statement explained, his job was not to bring the killers to justice; it was to determine whether there had been collusion between the Garda and other state agencies and the killers.

That is why he was prepared to offer guarantees to the IRA members that they would not be prosecuted for statements given to him.

Similar guarantees were offered at the Bloody Sunday Tribunal and by the commission charged with recovering the bodies of the Disappeared.

As John McBurney - the campaigning lawyer representing the family of Superintendent Harry Breen, one of the dead officers - says, it will be hard for the bereaved families to hear evidence and explanation from the perpetrators.

That is one reason why the family of Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Lady Cecily said they didn't want an inquiry into the murder of their loved ones - even though Garda collusion had been alleged.

Trading truth for justice is a tough call. In this case, a lot will depend on the quality of the information given by the IRA members.

In the case of the Disappeared, the evidence came long after the deaths, but many people will consider the trade-off worthwhile because it allowed several bodies to be recovered and prosecution was, in any case, a very remote possibility. Those speaking to the commission were offered anonymity, as well.

At the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where there was no anonymity, the results were mixed.

IRA members giving evidence - like their British Army opposite numbers - were not always convincing.

For instance, Martin McGuinness gave the impression of having left the IRA some time in the early 1970s - a version not generally accepted by historians - and refused to answer a number of questions citing the IRA's honour code. Gerry Adams denies ever being in the IRA and Sinn Fein denies any link to the IRA, although nearly half its Assembly members are ex-prisoners.

If the public - and victims - are to accept the case for waiving prosecution rights in return for the truth, they would need to get the whole truth - not a spun, or partial, version.

We need to know what Judge Peter Smithwick makes of the IRA accounts. If they seem accurate to him, then the case for a commission which can offer similar deals becomes stronger.

A commission set up by the British and Irish governments could, if it got proper co-operation from all sides, provide a lot of answers quickly.

The Smithwick Tribunal will help us find out if that is feasible and worthwhile.

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