Prisoner early releases were a necessary, if imperfect, compromise in the interests of peace ... ‘letters of comfort’ for On-the-Runs were a violation of victims’ and survivors’ human rights
Former Irish diplomat Eamon Delaney called for a line to be drawn under NI atrocities in this newspaper on Monday. Matthew Jury, solicitor for the families of those murdered in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing, thinks that’s a betrayal
On Monday of this week, Eamon Delaney’s opinion on how to address the escalating legacy crisis in Northern Ireland was published in the Belfast Telegraph.
Out of the traps, Mr Delaney cited Brexit; asserting that the current chaos and crisis in Westminster is the reason for the collapse of the Stormont House Agreement and the ensuing legacy crisis.
Any claim that Brexit is responsible for the legacy crisis is false; indeed, any attempt to hitch the Brexit horse to the wagon of the Troubles is misplaced, dangerous and succour to extremists on both sides seeking to topple Northern Ireland’s fragile peace.
The more mundane fact is this: the Stormont House Agreement is on hold because, in 2017, the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed with the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal.
To be clear, this article isn’t concerned with why the Stormont House Agreement collapsed; it certainly isn’t interested in Brexit, and never the twain need meet.
So, why the pedantry? Because these are the facts and, in this Trumpian era of post-truth, safeguarding and preserving facts is more important than ever. Politics and politicians mustn’t be allowed to disappear the truth, just so that the remaining void can be filled with alternative facts more amenable to their agenda.
Returning to the legacy crisis, Mr Delaney asks: “Why should the killers of the 1990s go free, but those from much earlier get arrested?” His conclusion is: because “the peace process required difficult compromises and releasing the paramilitaries was one of them. It was about moving on”.
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Assuming Mr Delaney is referring to the terrorist On-the-Runs (OTRs), who were given a de facto amnesty by the Blair government, let’s be clear: those paramilitaries who were released under the Good Friday Agreement were tried, convicted and served a minimum of two years in prison.
Consequently, their victims were, at the least, granted a modicum of justice in the form of a judicial ruling and record of truth identifying the perpetrators and the facts of what occurred, as well as the perpetrators receiving a custodial sentence.
In contrast, the OTRs spent years avoiding facing up to their alleged crimes in a cowardly way; whether hiding out overseas, or denying membership of that organisation whose cause was so important, they had once proudly killed for it. In the end, their previously professed high principles weren’t as important as saving their own skin.
In the meantime, their alleged victims were left to suffer the secondary trauma of being denied justice and, worse, the truth of what happened to their murdered loved ones.
The enforced disappearance of persons is properly recognised as a crime against humanity and a terrorist tool. This is because of the uncertainty and fear it generates, as well as its denial of fundamental human rights, including the right to a fair trial.
While there are, of course, distinctions with the Disappeared, not knowing who was responsible for, and the truth about, a murder of a loved one, even when the body is located and identified, while watching the alleged perpetrator walk free, is arguably just as harmful to the individual and society in general.
The point is this: releases under the Good Friday Agreement and the Blair government’s secret deal with the IRA to give OTRs get-out-of-jail-free cards are two very different things.
The former was a considered, transparent and necessary (albeit imperfect) compromise in the interests of peace; the latter was a violation of the human rights of the victims and survivors of the Troubles; a crass back-room deal done for the sake of political expediency. These are the facts. And they’re important. The difference between those released under the Good Friday Agreement and the OTRs is that the latter have never had to answer for their actions.
This is a stain on the peace process and, rather than tarnishing it further, moving now to ensure the OTRs are held to account and that stain is removed is an essential step to ensure and preserve its integrity.
Full disclosure: I am a solicitor whose firm acts for the families of those murdered by the IRA in the bombing of Hyde Park in 1982; murders for which John Downey is the chief suspect.
Last year, Downey was detained, pending extradition to Northern Ireland to face prosecution for two other terrorist murders, those of Alfred Johnston (32) and James Eames (33) in 1972.
Mr Delaney says that, in seeking to extradite and prosecute Downey and others, the British Government is “being rather pedantic and even vengeful”. Again, this ignores the facts, as well as the rights of the victims.
While the Public Prosecution Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland deserve praise for seeking to hold Downey to account, it is only as a result of the tireless campaigning for justice of the families of his alleged victims who have brought this to pass.
Contrary to what Mr Delaney believes, I can confidently say the British Government, rather than being of any help, put every possible obstacle in the families’ way — a frustration felt not just by the families, but also, no doubt, by the police services.
It’s very easy to politicise and, by doing so, complicate such matters, when the Government is held out to be responsible, but the reality is, it is the victims who are calling for justice — not the politicians. And it is the victims whom we should care about; not the politics.
Don’t tell the victims to move on. Tell those in Government to do their job and to stop looking for the easy way out.
This truth is something that is being disappeared by the “legacy process” in Northern Ireland and it is this failure that has resulted in the shameful imbalance in the application of justice and a rewriting of history for which future generations will suffer.
It’s simple: if you commit murder, whether you are a terrorist or an agent of the state, then you must answer for your crimes. Not for reasons of vengeance, but because justice is a human right.
A properly executed and balanced peace process can accommodate this and to withhold it from the victims is no less than a crime against humanity.
Matthew Jury is managing partner of London law firm McCue & Partners LLP
Belfast Telegraph Digital