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Why we need another Eames or Bradley to draw a line under past: Austen Morgan

The authors of Lost Lives didn't wait for political agreement to document the past, and neither should civic society, says Austen Morgan


Lord Eames and Denis Bradley

Lord Eames and Denis Bradley

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Lord Eames and Denis Bradley

The past - contrary to the reconciliation promise of the Belfast Agreement, now approaching its 20th anniversary - dominates the present in Northern Ireland and bodes unwell for the future, there being little or nothing for unionists, nationalists and others to share culturally and intellectually.

Is there a case (following Denis Bradley and Lord Eames's joint appearance on The View on BBC Northern Ireland on February 1) for drawing a line under the past - no more Troubles inquiries, prosecutions or inquests?

I believe there is and that it would lead sooner rather than later to the opening up of State archives in London, Belfast and maybe even Dublin.

I first considered this matter of the future of the past by way of conclusion to my book Tony Blair And The IRA (London, 2016) - that work is based upon the 1,500 pages of documents disclosed in the John Downey trial in the Old Bailey in London in February 2014 - which allowed me to dissect the Northern Ireland Office's so-called administrative scheme of 2000-2014, whereby 187 of 228 IRA 'on the runs' benefited from, effectively, a secret UK Government amnesty.

More recently there has been a campaign for a statute of limitations to be applied to soldiers (but not seemingly police).

A Private Member's Bill has been introduced in Parliament and is awaiting its second reading.

The arguments in favour of continuing prosecution are mainly: 1) victims generally demand it; 2) perpetrators should not go unpunished; 3) we have legacy litigation already in play; 4) humanitarian concerns, on the part of many people, require it; 5) criminal justice goes on for ever; 6) the passage of time is not a reason to stop; and 7) resources can be provided by the Treasury in London (as they were to get DUP support for the UK Government on Brexit).

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But each of these arguments quickly throws up an antithetical point.

Take, for example, victims and survivors.

Would relatives not grieve better in private in a society which stopped irritating the sores of the past?

And are the chiefs of the criminal justice system - Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice; John Larkin QC, the Attorney General, and George Hamilton, the Chief Constable - all wrong, in their various ways, to worry about diversion from the needs of the present and the possible loss of hope for the future?

The arguments in favour of amnesty are more clear-cut: 1) precedents from the creation of the Irish State; 2) various immunities granted paramilitaries and others from 1997; 3) the release of terrorist prisoners after two years, provided for in the Belfast Agreement; 4) no legal impediment if Parliament legislates for an amnesty; 5) the doings of officialdom, and, in particular, Sir Quentin Thomas's Clean Sheets report of January 2001 (where the NIO first canvassed the idea of an amnesty); and 6) the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill 2005-06, which Sinn Fein - still abstaining - wrecked in Parliament, because it applied also to the security forces.

Is there not now a basis for convergence (not alliance) between the 228 'on the runs' (plus loyalist paramilitaries, who were never offered comfort letters) and the much smaller number of police and soldiers - a handful at most - at risk of prosecution?

Whether devolution is gone for good or not, Sinn Fein and the DUP are most unlikely to broker such a solution.

But is there not a composite Eames/Bradley out there, a man or woman from civil society, not contaminated by political identity or patronage by the Northern Ireland Office, who could launch a single-issue campaign, based on a programme of drawing a line under the past in order to stop the present and future being dominated by re-runs of Troubles atrocities?

Elected politicians - and no criticism is intended - always find it easier to listen to lobby groups, not least when sectarianism drives tribal range, including articulated claims to be putting the interests of "our" victims first and last.

The Irish (and UK) Government - despite Bertie Ahern's letter of December 23, 1999 (in which he suggested amnesties, north and south) and Tony Blair's four secret agreements with Gerry Adams (revealed in my book) - are also unlikely to risk unpopularity.

Ministers - in absence of a real policy on the past - remain committed to the four new institutions in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The historical investigations unit, merging bits of the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman, is extremely concerning.

The long march of Baroness Nuala O'Loan and Dr Michael Maguire through the past would be continued in a historical investigations unit where professional police officers would be playing second fiddle to their professional critics.

The multi-volume Saville Report on Bloody Sunday (2010), whether read or unread, and Alex Gibney's Loughinisland documentary No Stone Unturned (2017), whether viewed or avoided, give the world a very distorted view of who killed whom in the Northern Ireland Troubles from 1968 to 1998.

It took civil society - and in particular David McKittrick and his journalist colleagues - to produce the successive editions of Lost Lives, from 1999, the unofficial work which tried to record every death from the Troubles.

They did not wait for a Government quango, political agreement at Stormont or EU funding, so why is the past corralled as an agenda item in a political talks process, characterised by never any agreement and never any end.

It is only with the release of documents (redacted for Article 2 reasons under the Strasbourg human rights convention) that a true narrative could be constructed over coming decades, showing: republicans killed 60% of people (including many Catholics); loyalists killed 30% (including many Protestants); and the 10% of State killings - compared with the aforementioned 90% - were mainly, but not entirely, lawful.

Dr Austen Morgan is a barrister in London and Belfast and is the author of Tony Blair And The IRA (London, 2016). This article forms the basis of his address to a legacy litigation seminar to be held at Malone House in Belfast this Saturday from 10.30am to 3.30pm

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