It's time to draw a line under Northern Ireland atrocities and move on
Full disclosure about the past is welcome, but charging old men over a conflict that is long over helps no one, writes Eamon Delaney
At this stage Brexit has done considerable damage to the prospects for a restored political settlement in Northern Ireland. As a result the Stormont House Agreement, which among other things, proposed a procedure for addressing legacy issues has also been put on hold.
This is considered a bad thing, obviously, but it might also actually be a good development.
It may allow the existing historical inquiries process to continue in a low-key way and not be ramped up into the excavation of the past in a manner that would be more destabilising.
Recent events after all have raised again the vexatious question of how to prosecute atrocities from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Or whether we should prosecute at all.
Many people would feel that we shouldn’t, and that we should draw a line under these awful events of the past.
Yes, these events should be investigated, not least for clarity for the relatives.
But to drag people into the dock now and possibly into jail seems pointless and counter-productive.
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It stirs up new resentments and anger when surely we should be doing all we can to stabilise and secure peace.
Indeed, most people thought this was what we were doing — moving on — with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 when all the paramilitary prisoners were released.
This is very important: why should the killers of the 1990s go free, but those from much earlier get arrested?
The peace process required difficult compromises and releasing the paramilitaries was one of them. It was about moving on.
I have argued this before, even when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was dragged in for questioning about the disappearance of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville (the Public Prosecution Service later said Mr Adams would not face any criminal charges in connection with her disappearance).
Now we have the revelation that Harry Flynn, the alleged INLA killer of Tory MP Airey Neave at Westminster in 1979, has been discovered living in the south of Spain. Jeffrey Donaldson MP and others have called for Flynn to be arrested in Spain and brought back to Britain for trial.
But the instinct of many observers would be: what good would it serve? Here we go again, they will be thinking, weary of another return to events of the dark past.
It was the same to some extent with the calls for the now-elderly British soldiers to face prosecution for the infamous 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings all of 47 years ago.
In the end just one, ‘Soldier F’, is to be charged over the massacre, which hardly seems fair to this one soldier when so many others were involved on the day.
Many of the relatives have reacted with dignified satisfaction at this, in that it shows at least some restorative justice, because it offers a symbol.
But is it symbols that we are looking for here? And what will it mean for ‘Soldier F’ if he is convicted? Will he become both a fall-guy but also a hero for taking the full burden of the Army’s responsibility on his shoulders?
To be honest, the whole thing is enough to give one a feeling of dread. Many of us thought the Saville Inquiry verdict would bring closure to this terrible event.
But Mr Adams is also part of the problem here.
On the very day that he first called publicly for a full inquiry into the Ballymurphy killings of 1971 (when British troops shot a number of civilians), he also dismissed the IRA’s involvement in the disappearance of Charlie Armstrong in south Armagh, whose remains had just been found.
Who killed Mr Armstrong was of “secondary importance”, said Mr Adams.
But you can’t have it both ways.
It is the same, however, with those British voices who, perhaps understandably, oppose the prosecution of the former soldiers from Bloody Sunday, but who yet want to pursue equally ageing IRA men for past actions.
Look at the case of John Downey, the alleged Hyde Park bomber of 1982.
He was recently pursued for that London bombing, but now also for the further charge of being involved in the killing of two UDR men in 1972.
In his case, Downey was the recipient of a ‘letter of comfort’ issued by a previous British Government as a guarantee not to be prosecuted for previous alleged actions.
The understanding was that recipients would benefit from the same approach as convicted IRA members and the prisoners (including loyalists) released after the peace deal of 1998.
Tony Blair claims that, without these letters of comfort, the IRA ceasefire would not have held.
But successive British Governments have abandoned these guarantees and appear set on a rather pedantic and even vengeful attitude to past atrocities. They should let the past be.
But Sinn Fein should do the same. It appears to be fighting the “war” all over again through legacy issues.
This is also, of course, an attempt to legitimise the IRA’s “armed struggle” and gain retrospective parity with the security forces.
It is entirely selective and it’s not helping peace and stability.
It shows the inability of both Sinn Fein and the unionists to move on and face the future.
Rather on focusing on a shared future for Northern Ireland and improving roads, hospitals and investment, the two sides are fighting the war all over again via legacy issues. And, on Brexit, the Irish Language and gay rights, they seem to be finding things to disagree on.
Of course, the bigger context is that the two governments are not taking hold of the process and are letting clear understandings unravel about dealing with the past, agreed in 1998 and after, such as at Stormont House.
Specific atrocities and offences are now apparently being dealt with on an ad hoc basis and individually, which is fair enough in terms of legality and justice, but it ignores the bigger context.
This unravelling matches the wider unravelling of the whole Northern Ireland peace process, of course, with the Stormont impasse and Brexit divisions.
But that is another story.
Full clarity about past atrocities is welcome, but charging people now for the actions of a conflict that is supposed to be well over is not helping things at all.
It’s time to deal with the present and face the future.
Eamon Delaney is a former Irish diplomat, author and commentator