Amnesty call from John Larkin is not just brave but logical too
When I heard Attorney General John Larkin's call for an end to all prosecutions, inquests and public enquiries relating to the Troubles, I thought of what the fictional Sir Humphrey would say in response. "Brave" might be the ambiguous response of Yes Minister's wily civil servant.
Bravery in politics is rare; the tyranny of popularity and electoral survival means few politicians venture into unknown territory. John Larkin is no shrinking violet. He is an academic and practitioner and his term of office as AG is finite. He claimed his proposal "was not a call for an amnesty, but a logical consequence of the [Good Friday] Agreement". And, as someone who was a participant in the process leading to that agreement, I can identify: the concept of amnesty was implicit in the negotiations.
Under the agreement, the release of hundreds of prisoners was sanctioned.
Later in the peace process, prosecutions were ruled out when linked to decommissioning and the Sentences Act limited the jail terms to two years for those convicted of killings in the Troubles.
Viewed from this perspective, the hostile response to Larkin's proposals was overplayed. As the chief legal officer in Northern Ireland, it would be surprising if he did not have a view on how to deal with unresolved Troubles crimes.
The PSNI and Director of Public Prosecutions have already spoken of the stresses and tensions of policing the past and present; their responses to Larkin's statement were less kneejerk.
The political response from the parties and from the two governments was negative and populist. No-one seems in the mood for creative politics these days.
Peter Robinson rejected Larkin's call as "unacceptable". Interestingly, former secretary of state Peter Hain described it as "common sense".
There have been earlier attempts to deal with the rights of victims and quest for closure. Robin Eames and Denis Bradley published a report which broadly recommended a commission to look at unresolved cases, appropriate remembrance, amnesty and a scheme of compensation.
None of this has come to pass – presumably because it was not politically acceptable, or deliverable, by the Executive.
But NI21 leader Basil McCrea seems to be on the same wavelength as Larkin. He said: "Such proposals may be painful for many, but victims deserve honesty from their politicians." At NI21's conference, he said: "If, as a society, we are forced to relive every act of barbarism, if we continue to report on every atrocity as if it happened yesterday, if we continue to open old wounds, to pick at the scabs of the past, we will never escape our past or heal our community."
The late Fr Alec Reid has been widely eulogised for his tenacity in facilitating the Hume/Adams dialogue in the 1980s.
When news of the talks leaked, there was a media backlash. John Hume was vilified for his efforts. Nearly 30 years later, that early dialogue and diplomacy can now be seen as the embryo of our current peace. What was "unacceptable" then turned out to be the right thing to do. It was "brave". It was not popular, or principled.
Larkin's suggestion of a de facto amnesty – however controversial – is out there now.
In spite of initial hostility, it may prove helpful to progress as we collectively tread over the broken glass of the past.