The sheer scale of the opposition to the Government’s proposed Troubles amnesty is laid bare in today’s LucidTalk poll.
Seven in 10 people disagree with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis’s plan to ban the prosecution of both military veterans and former paramilitaries and to end legacy inquests and civil cases.
Opposition is significantly stronger among Sinn Fein and SDLP voters: 86% of nationalists oppose the plan — in reality, an amnesty dressed up as a statute of limitations — compared to 58% of unionist voters.
Feelings ran highest among younger age groups, with opposition to the proposals declining among the older generation.
While the opposition of the five main Assembly parties will have given Mr Lewis an indication of the obstacles he faces in pushing through his scheme, the poll results spell out the true extent of the mountain he must climb. Had Mr Lewis’s primary degree at the University of Buckingham been classics rather than economics, he might better appreciate that hubris — of which he demonstrates no shortage — is invariably followed by nemesis.
In borrowing from the standard NIO playbook of presenting the fractious northern parties with a fait accompli and hoping to strong-arm them into acquiescence, he has badly overplayed a hand which was weak to begin with.
Mr Lewis’s unfortunate unilateral approach has succeeded in forging unity, but only in opposition to his scheme.
Mr Lewis is right when he says the Stormont House Agreement has delivered precious little for victims and survivors.
But quite how he thinks extinguishing the last, faint hope of justice will encourage them to “draw a line under” the Troubles stands conventional political logic on its head.
The major flaw in this wrong-headed scheme is that it purports to address the grievances of a specific group in Northern Ireland when the real, unacknowledged target audience lies elsewhere: the Tory shires and the editorial writers of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
The fact that nationalist and republican voters oppose the proposals so overwhelmingly suggests they are prepared to forego whatever perceived benefits it might bring “their” community to ensure veterans (and, to a lesser extent, former loyalist paramilitaries) are prevented from availing of them, too.
As a barrister at Inner Temple, Mr Lewis might have assumed that victims and survivors, many of some decades’ standing, might not easily surrender their basic right to legal justice, or that political parties covetous of their vote might respond accordingly.
The carrot to Mr Lewis’s stick — an ill-defined “truth-recovery process” — meanwhile seems insufficient balm to the bane of being stripped of your identity as a victim of wrongdoing, including state-sanctioned wrongdoing.
What incentive a former paramilitary, or Army veteran, would have to cooperate with such a process, when practical immunity is guaranteed by an Act of Parliament, is anyone’s guess. Mr Lewis may be a great believer in the transformative power of truth-telling to change lives. Experience to date would suggest he is in a minority of one.
The opposition of the Irish Government to the proposals is of increasing, and perhaps decisive, significance (Taoiseach Micheál Martin said they are “wrong for many, many reasons”).
Part of this is attributable to chagrin at being bypassed by Mr Lewis’s solo run, but there is also a greater appreciation among the southern parties of just how axiomatic is the legal principle he seeks to overturn.
Ironically, last month’s meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at Dublin Castle produced a joint communiqué which was replete with precisely the sort of language (“unique relationship”, “strong bilateral cooperation”) missing from exchanges since.
To date, all we know of Mr Lewis’s intentions are contained in his 32-page consultative document, with a Bill being promised in the autumn.
There is still time — just — for a properly thought-through, trilateral approach with the Stormont parties and the Dublin government, but the hour is getting late.