Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

For many, John Larkin's proposal is just too bitter a pill to swallow

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The Attorney General is well-known for his outspokenness and we should be grateful we have a public official of that ilk. But in relation to dealing with the past, he may have allowed himself to be influenced more by administrative efficiency than by justice.

As a member of the Policing Board, I am acutely aware of the resource pressures placed on the PSNI by the investigations it is required to pursue into crimes committed long ago.

From a human rights point-of-view, there is no absolute legal barrier to banning a category of prosecutions (or any 'lesser' form of justice, such as inquests, inquiries, or civil claims).

The European Court of Human Rights would probably tolerate such a ban -- provided the deaths in question were still effectively investigated and if it was persuaded that there was a legitimate state interest in drawing a line under our serious conflict.

The court would be wary, however, of setting a precedent for places like Turkey and Chechnya, where the conflicts have cost 10 times as many lives as here.

Until heavily criticised by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in July, the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team seemed to be satisfying the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, by checking that no evidential opportunities had been missed during the initial investigations of deaths.

It was primarily because the HET began treating deaths caused by the Army differently from others that it fell foul of the convention.

If the HET could be fully 're-vamped' so that it satisfies the independence requirement imposed by the European Court (which means ensuring, for example, that all relevant intelligence material is filtered by someone who has no RUC background), there would be no need to ban prosecutions.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement stipulated that 'qualifying' prisoners would have to serve no longer than two years in prison. Although confined to paramilitary prisoners, that already constituted an 'amnesty' of sorts.

For many in the community, given the number of murders that were committed during the conflict, it was a bitter pill to swallow. I doubt if the majority of us could now swallow the bigger pill of, in effect, forgetting that the murders ever occurred in the first place.

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