Conservative MP Mark Francois might not be described as the sharpest tool in the Westminster parliamentary box. Among the Honourable Gentleman’s contributions to enlightened debate have been that his military service meant he “wasn’t trained to lose” (Francois served in the Territorial Army) and informing us that, like his D-Day veteran father, he will “never submit to bullying by any German”.
Yet, amid the unsurprising fury over the announcement by his party colleague, Brandon Lewis, of a statute of limitations on Troubles investigations, Francois asked an interesting question which further discomfited his party colleague. He wanted to know exactly when legislation would arrive.
Francois may have been asking for the wrong reasons, obsessing about that obnoxious term, “vexatious prosecutions” — as if justice for families of victims is trifling. But his continuing anxiety over an unfulfilled Conservative election manifesto pledge indicated that legislation from Lewis is not quite — yet — a foregone conclusion.
I spoke to two Conservative MPs this week. They had diametrically opposing views, not only of the statute of limitations, but on its imminence. “Railroaded through this autumn” said the first. “Might never get through — watch the stalling” said the second. While the first view may prevail, Francois clearly feared the prevarication many might welcome.
The Government’s proposals state that establishing “a collective way forward” — good luck with that — will allow legislation to be “introduced as soon as possible”. The collective way forward is not towards what is being proposed, for sure.
It seemed clear from the demeanour of Brandon Lewis in the House of Commons that his heart was not really in piling hurt upon injustice for the families of victims. He resembled a hapless defence lawyer trying to construct a spurious case for a murderer. Which, of course, he was. Lots of them.
So, to fast-track or backtrack? Lewis might usefully buy himself some time. The average tenure of a Northern Ireland Secretary of State is little over two years. Lewis has already served an 18-month sentence. With luck, he could be reshuffled to another post soon and in one bound be as free as all those to whom he has promised immunity. Lewis would avoid responsibility for the dismal prospect of families of victims going to their graves bereft of any sense of justice for the loved ones who headed there much earlier.
Even when bluffing (see the Protocol), Lewis normally cuts an amiable figure at the despatch box, but delivering this news he was needled, responding particularly sharply to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
The Secretary of State went farther than the “Get Out of Jail Free” card of the Good Friday Agreement, the moral ambiguities of which were subsumed by peace. His stopping of investigations trumped the uneasy compromises of 1998 with none of its sweeteners.
In maintaining the ludicrous legalese that a statute of limitations is not an amnesty, the Northern Ireland Secretary knew he was playing a hopeless parliamentary hand.
Lewis was reduced to desperate cliches about drawing a line under the past. He made a bad situation worse by preposterously claiming dumping on victims facilitates reconciliation. I doubt Lewis believed his own utterances. And then he had Francois demanding more and sooner anyway.
The Secretary of State is correct that the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) has not yielded much. But he is replacing slim hopes of justice with none.
Perhaps the least bad of the available options, the SHA was designed to uphold the rule of law, facilitate the pursuit of justice and allow information recovery. Lewis gamely talked up how his move might free up knowledge retrieval, but he will never make an actor. All he promised was a final act of decommissioning — that of the PSNI’s Legacy Investigations Branch and its 1,100 cases.
Inevitably, the promotion of an amnesty — sorry, statute of limitations — restarted the statistical battles. PIRA easily the biggest killers, then the UVF and UFF. The British state responsible for only 9% of killings. Only four British soldiers ever convicted of murder, some promoted, while more than 10,000 PIRA members were incarcerated, as they filled prisons and graves. Each statistic is valid, but does not assist the poor families.
The Government dare not use the “a” word. Our University of Liverpool 2019 study found only 14% of respondents backed an amnesty, with 54% opposed, although nearly one-third were undecided.
LucidTalk’s May 2021 poll results did not markedly differ: 29% of the population wanted a total amnesty, but 45% were opposed. Only 21% wanted selectivity, with a “more lenient” policy for the security forces.
Nationalists overwhelmingly opposed selective amnesties and 75% wanted none. Unionists were more in favour of special treatment for the security forces (38%) compared to 35% wanting a blanket amnesty and 21% saying none.
A truth and reconciliation commission attracts more support: 43% in favour in the 2019 study and only 16% opposed. Those seeing such commissions as panaceas should beware. Almost half of families of victims in other conflicts claimed to be re-traumatised when deployed.
I would be amazed if any truth commission emerges. Perpetrators are wary of truth-telling and some families of victims would struggle to cope.
The anguish of those families is compounded by a government offering trite pledges to “deal with” the past, as it erases the work of its predecessor and eradicates lingering prospects for justice.
Assuming a Bill does arrive, a review of its working can be expected after three years. By that time, it will be too late for justice-less families.
The only thing that might have changed for them will be the person holding the office of Secretary of State.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool