Troubles ‘amnesty’: how much contempt does this government have for Northern Ireland?


Show caption Irene Connolly at home in Belfast as secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis makes his announcement. Irene’s mother, Joan, was killed in the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images Opinion Troubles ‘amnesty’: how much contempt does this government have for Northern Ireland? Susan McKay Hard tears have been shed by people who felt they had no more left, as families are denied truth and justice Wed 21 Jul 2021 07.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In the early hours of a summer morning in 1991 Tom Oliver, a 43-year-old father of seven children, left his home in the border county of Louth in the Republic of Ireland to attend to a calving cow in a field on his farm in the Cooley mountains. Hours later, his body was found on a remote rural road across the border, in south County Armagh. He had been shot in the head. The IRA claimed it had killed him, alleging that he had informed the security forces about arms it had stored on his land. According to them he was, in the ugly language of the time, “a tout”.

His family rejected the slur, and said he had nothing whatsoever to do with politics or paramilitarism. No one was ever brought to justice for his murder, which was widely condemned at the time. Now, exactly 30 years later, a detective investigating the activities of a suspected British army agent in the IRA has found fresh DNA evidence opening up lines of inquiry that could extend from Ireland to Australia. Jon Boutcher, who heads Operation Kenova – an investigation into claims of state involvement in the kidnap, torture and murder of more than 50 individuals – says he now has a good understanding of what happened and who was involved. After three decades of grieving silently, the Oliver family has welcomed this breakthrough. They have a renewed longing that justice will at last be done.

But there is a problem. Last week the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, announced that the government is to ban all legal investigations into Troubles-related murders and atrocities in Northern Ireland in the years before the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. Tom Oliver’s body was found in the north. We do not yet know where he was killed. His car was never found. If the government has its way, this investigation will be going nowhere.

Expressions of anger, grief and despair have been reverberating around Northern Ireland since Lewis made his announcement. Relatives of the dead and injured, who thought they could not be hurt any more than they already had been, have discovered that fresh pain is indeed available. Hard tears have been shed by people who felt they had no more tears left. Well used to obstacles and setbacks, they have nonetheless struggled to find words strong enough to express their disgust. Sandra Peake, who runs the Wave organisation for victims and survivors, said simply: “To tell people who have suffered unimaginable grief and trauma that what happened to their loved ones is no longer of any interest to the state is perverse and obscene.”

It has long been obvious that the government is sick of Northern Ireland, with its costly neediness, its fractious politicians, its intractable issues. Let’s not forget that in 2019 a poll showed a majority of Conservative voters would be willing to let Northern Ireland go for the sake of Brexit, and that Boris Johnson has repeatedly and blatantly lied about his intentions towards the “precious union”. Last year, Lewis agreed that the government’s amendments to the Brexit trade deal in relation to Northern Ireland had broken international law – but only “in a limited and specific way”.

This new breach cannot be minimised. Darragh Mackin, the solicitor representing the Oliver family, said, “What the government is trying to do is frightening, but I am confident it will be found to be in breach of the European convention on human rights. Citizens have a right to have recourse to law and to have fair investigations especially when lives have been lost.” Around 3,000 killings carried out during the Troubles have never been solved. Many were not investigated. Some families never even got a visit from the police.

In 2019, a Northern Ireland Office consultation found that “a clear majority” opposed any form of amnesty or statute of limitations, believing this could damage the process of reconciliation, and that the government said it would “move forward sensitively and with as much consensus as possible”. The government had also previously claimed that when Northern Ireland’s executive was reinstated after a three-year collapse, the Stormont House agreement, dating back to 2014, would be implemented within 100 days. This hard-won deal included a range of measures to deal with legacy issues. The government has already used the agreement as part of its defence in pending legacy cases at the European court of human rights.

Yet now the government wants to introduce an amnesty for murderers within the British army and the security forces, as well as those in loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations. There will also be a ban on all “current and future” legal investigations, including civil cases, tribunals, inquests and inquiries. This will include the 1,500 cases on the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s legacy investigation books. It will include legacy investigations by the police ombudsman. The former director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland, Barra McGrory, said he was shocked by the proposals. The government was seeking, he said, “to abolish completely all meaningful and judicial accountable processes”.

The prime minister claims this new statute of limitations is required to deal with “vexatious” attempts to prosecute former soldiers, and is in the interests of reconciliation. Imagine how that would sound if your child had been shot in the back by an army sniper as she walked along a country lane, or your father had been shot in the head by a paratrooper for attending a civil rights march. But it appealed to the Tory tabloids which celebrated with headlines last week about “justice for our troops”. In reality, there have been hardly any prosecutions against soldiers, and of the few that were pending, most have collapsed.

Maybe it is about keeping the dirtiest of the state’s secrets. As well as Operation Kenova, forthcoming investigations include one into the Glenanne gang, a loyalist gang that murdered many Catholics, among whose members were Ulster Defence Regiment British army personnel as well as members of the police. Last year, the government refused to conduct an inquiry into the 1989 murder by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association of solicitor Pat Finucane, a murder that former prime minister David Cameron admitted revealed “shocking levels of collusion”. It did so in defiance of a supreme court ruling that found previous investigations had been in breach of international law. Most of those who will suffer, however, will do so as collateral damage. Kathleen Gillespie’s husband, Patsy, was turned by the IRA into a “human bomb” – chained to a van carrying explosives – killing him and five soldiers in Derry. She said the government obviously felt that “we’re just the ordinary common people so it’s alright to push us to one side”.

Some patronising British commentators appear to think the government should get away with this, since what Northern Ireland needs is to move on and leave its past behind. However, Boutcher of Operation Kenova says he “does not necessarily take no for an answer”. Sandra Peake says the government wants to draw a veil over the past but “there isn’t one thick enough to hide the blood and bones of thousands of victims or muffle the cries of their families”.

Everyone knows prosecutions are unlikely in most historical cases. Many people would settle for a measure of truth. You can’t legislate against hope, though you can destroy people by trying. We need to know our history, not erase it. There has never been a British government that has shown more contempt for the people of Northern Ireland than this one.

• Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist whose books include Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground