Once upon a time, a favourite song in the Sinn Fein hymnbook - often echoed on its banners - was “No hierarchy of victims”. Their argument was straightforward.
When it came to compensation, respect or the right to be memorialised publicly, the person who had planted a lethal bomb or shot a policeman was on a par with what normal people would call the victim.
Most law-abiding people thought that absolutely outrageous, but equally felt impotent to counter the flood of Sinn Fein propaganda.
As the years went by, republicans proved to be indefatigable negotiators, lobbyists and agitator-organisers who kept that chant going while finding loopholes — and lawyers to exploit them — that favour perpetrators.
We have now reached a position where the loudest voices demanding what they now call “truth and justice” are republican, for they recognise that the system is unwittingly heavily skewed in their favour.
This led the journalist and broadcaster Chris Ryder, author of The RUC 1922 to 2000: a Force under Fire, to write in this newspaper last week that it would be better for the people of Northern Ireland if the Troubles files were closed for legal purposes and investigation and analysis left to historians in the future.
I fear he’s probably right, primarily because while indeed I do believe in a hierarchy of victims, the evidence suggests that the justice system these days operates more to the benefit of lawyers and bad guys than to the innocent and we need to face that reality.
After the criminal justice system failed the Omagh victims, I spent around a decade closely involved in the ultimately successful campaign to sue some of the bombers in a civil court. The families had had to raise over £1 million before Peter Mandelson prevailed upon the government to give them legal aid.
Yet, to date, the Real IRA and the four named men found guilty in 2009 have not come up with a penny of the damages awarded and they fight every step of the way at the expense of British and Irish taxpayers.
Similarly, the IRA ex-Chief of Staff Thomas “Slab” Murphy has never paid the more than £2 million in costs he owes The Sunday Times since his failed libel actions against it in the late 1990s.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry cost the British taxpayer almost £200 million and was supposed to be part of the healing process, but what the public see is that the soldiers involved are being tracked down while there seems to be no pursuit of republican gunmen involved.
The British justice system is fairer than any other I know, but it is, of course, imperfect.
In 2013, the Attorney General John Larkin suggested not an amnesty but an end to further police investigations, inquests or inquiries into any relevant killings before the Good Friday Agreement.
Bluntly, he said: “At present we have very good tools… for critiquing the state, but we don’t have them for bringing to account those who have committed offences against the state.”
There was an understandable outpouring of anger, but three years on we really should discuss this rationally.
Unlike the state, the republican paramilitaries responsible for the majority of the Troubles murders have no records that courts can demand and operate an omerta code when they are not actually lying point blank.
“I-was-never-in-the-IRA” Gerry Adams endlessly demands new investigations and maximum state disclosure about, for instance, the use of informers.
I tweeted Mr Ryder’s article, which inevitably produced identikit comments like: “the British state can’t face its past; using death squads created a legacy issue it needs to bury”.
Danny Morrison, who rarely misses a propaganda opportunity, offered: “As the paper trail leads to number 10… it’s time to leave the past where it belongs. Funny that.”
It’s time we faced the truth that ruthless, clever and mendacious enemies are wreaking havoc with the legal system, and will continue to agitate for ruinously expensive investigations of soldiers and police.
If we don’t want their heroes at the top of the victims’ hierarchy, it’s time to have a rethink about how we deal with the past.