14 May 2021

Stop letting lies about Northern Ireland’s past go unchallenged

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On Tuesday, a coroner ruled that paratroopers shot dead ten “entirely innocent” people in Belfast almost fifty years ago. On the same day, the Government pledged to “introduce legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles”, in the Queen’s Speech.

The inquest’s findings, coupled with a lack of detail on proposed ‘legacy’ laws, show how difficult it will be to untangle the mess that successive governments have made of dealing with the province’s past. In the House of Commons, former veterans’ minister, Johnny Mercer, questioned whether the legislation will prevent soldiers from being prosecuted for alleged crimes in Northern Ireland. And Theresa May claimed that a statute of limitations for military personnel is likely to extend to terrorists.

Meanwhile, families of victims of IRA terrorism ask why their demands for truth and justice are routinely ignored, while financial resources and media coverage focus on the small number of deaths in Northern Ireland blamed on the security forces.

The pursuit of soldiers by prosecutors, while IRA criminals enjoy protection from the law through comfort letters, pardons and the ‘blind eye’ of investigators, is a glaring and emotive symbol of injustice, but it is far from the only difficulty with ‘legacy’. A ‘statute of limitations’ won’t dismantle a growing industry that republicans use to imply that Britain, rather than paramilitary groups, instigated the Troubles and kept them going.

The Ballymurphy ‘massacre’ took place in August 1971, as the army tried to arrest and detain suspected IRA members following the introduction of internment without trial. The lore around the events has now changed, but in the past, Provo balladeers celebrated violent resistance to this operation in a staunchly republican area. According to the Ballad of Long Kesh, “The boys of Ballymurphy / How they showed the way that night / And they showed the English soldiers / How Irishmen could fight.”

Against this backdrop of disorder and chaos, ten people were killed in Ballymurphy from the 9th to the 11th of August. The coroner found that the army was responsible for at least nine of these deaths. Mrs Justice Keegan acknowledged that the IRA was operating in the area at the time, but said there was no evidence to suggest any of the victims was linked to its activities. She also rejected suggestions that two of the deceased were gunmen and a third a petrol bomber.

The families of those killed at Ballymurphy conducted a determined campaign for inquests and it was difficult to begrudge them a thorough investigation. Now, it is reported that at least one paratrooper is likely to face prosecution. Yet even the evidence presented at this inquest showed how difficult it will be to extract anything like the truth from republicans. When Gerry Adams appeared before the court, he told coroners that he was not in the IRA, but nevertheless claimed its leaders ordered members not to fire on the army.

The Government’s current plans for legacy are based on proposals from the Stormont House Agreement, one of the periodic sets of crisis talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein aimed at keeping power-sharing going in Northern Ireland. Its centrepiece, the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), is set to investigate every single death attributed to the armed forces, as well as pursuing ‘non-criminal conduct charges’ against Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers. Meanwhile, the coroners’ court is working its way through 92 inquests into killings by the police and army during the Troubles, forty of which involve the deaths of terrorists

The Government says its forthcoming proposals, trailed in the Queen’s Speech, favour “information recovery and reconciliation” over the existing “cycle of investigations”. According to The Daily Telegraph and The Times, the plans will include a statute of limitations that prevents prosecutions for most Troubles’ crimes and something like South Africa’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission. An end to endless expensive inquests and inquiries into supposed state indiscretions would be welcome, but it is difficult to envisage republicans being candid enough to make truth recovery worthwhile.

If the statute of limitations covers terrorists, then the likelihood of their victims ever receiving truth or justice seems remote. After the Ballymurphy inquest findings, a victims group from Castlederg, a small town at the Northern Irish border with the Republic, highlighted the “30 year massacre” of 30 of its citizens. They were killed by the IRA and there were convictions for just two of those murders. “The Irish state operated an open border policy allowing fleeing… terrorist gangs… access to a safe haven following murders and bombings,” its statement read, “There has been no inquest or public inquiry into these murders.” Kenny Donaldson, from the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) which campaigns on behalf of Troubles victims, said, “Going forward, innocent victims and survivors of terrorism must also be afforded the same resources and focus on their cases.”

This government and its predecessors have allowed a scandal over the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past to develop. The republican movement, alongside ‘human rights’ lawyers and a dedicated group of academics, has shown remorseless commitment to portraying Britain as the aggressor during the Troubles. In their telling, the IRA’s campaign was a justified reaction to state violence. This narrative is historically and statistically absurd, but that has become almost irrelevant as Westminster governments, keen to keep Sinn Fein involved in the ‘peace process’, showed no inclination to scrutinise the past more thoroughly.

The University of Ulster academic, Cillian McGrattan, argued that recent legacy proposals are based on ideas about ‘transitional justice’ that are entirely unsuited to Northern Ireland. They draw upon models used in countries (like South Africa), where the state was the main perpetrator of violence and trust in the legal system had broken down. In contrast, in Ulster, the army and police were responsible for 10% of deaths, all of which have been investigated and most of which will have been justified. The IRA killed two thirds of the victims of the Troubles. The vast majority of these cases remain unsolved and every single one of them was murder.

The Government has identified that there is a problem with one-sided investigations into the Troubles and that is progress. The issues with legacy, though, go much deeper. The roles of victim and perpetrator in Northern Ireland have been turned on their head. Police officers and soldiers, who overwhelmingly kept people safe and prevented the province from descending into civil war, are cast as villains and criminals, while terrorists who caused death and destruction often wallow in victimhood.

The Belfast News Letter journalist, Ben Lowry, previously suggested that a time-limited inquiry into IRA violence might be one way to correct this warped narrative. There is a perception, though, that peace in Northern Ireland is too fragile to withstand a legacy process that scrutinises republicans’ role properly. That squeamishness is likely to blight the province’s future and allow lies about the Troubles to continue to go unchallenged.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.