David Davis writes for The Guardian ‘John Larkin is right – it’s time to stop probing the killings of the Troubles’
As published in The Guardian:
John Larkin is right – it’s time to stop probing the killings of the Troubles
The attorney general’s comments are in the spirit of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement – and further inquests and inquiries are unlikely to achieve anything more of use
The attorney general of Northern Ireland, John Larkin, has said there should be no more police investigations of, nor inquests or inquiries into, Troubles-related killings that occurred before the Good Friday agreement, whether perpetrated by members of paramilitary groups, police or the armed forces.
His comments have sparked outrage. Amnesty International has called it “an utter betrayal of victims’ fundamental right to justice”. Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour party has said victims were “entitled to justice irrespective of the lapse of time”.
After three decades of violence by paramilitary groups, police and armed forces, ceasefires repeatedly agreed and then broken, and more than 50,000 casualties, including about 3,500 deaths, the Good Friday agreement – now 15 years old – all but ended the Troubles. This vital step in the peace process required compromise; one of the most controversial being the early release of more than 400 convicted terrorists. The sight of vicious killers walking free from life sentences to be met by cheering, champagne-swilling supporters was not easy viewing. However, most recognised that waiving of justice for a few hundred people was a price worth paying for the long-term stability of a whole region. That is why I support Larkin’s calls for an end to prosecutions, inquests or inquiries into Troubles-related killings that took place before the Good Friday agreement.
In reality, his comments not only reflect the spirit of the agreement, they also recognise the increasing impracticality of getting to the bottom of such killings.
The Good Friday agreement incorporates the 1997 arms decommissioning law, which states that weapons surrendered by paramilitary groups cannot be forensically tested for use in criminal prosecutions. Similarly, any information that leads to the discovery of the “The Disappeared” – the bodies of people murdered by paramilitary groups and buried in unknown locations – can only be used to identify remains, not in criminal trials.
This means that crucial forensic evidence, pivotal to securing convictions, cannot even be obtained, let alone used in court. As a result, the chance of victims’ families getting justice in the form of a criminal conviction is low and getting lower.
I am not seeking to excuse unlawful killings by either side, nor those committed by British armed forces. Our soldiers must operate under the rule of law. That is why I was appalled by the findings of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Murder cannot be overlooked just because the perpetrator is in uniform.
However, it is hard to see what can be achieved for victims’ families by summoning former soldiers, many just teenagers in the 1970s. With forensic evidence almost non-existent and 40-year-old witness accounts usually unreliable, the prospects of securing convictions look remote at best. Any investigation, inquest or inquiry would be a fruitless exercise in opening up old wounds.
A decade ago I was approached by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to give evidence in a trial. The defendant stood accused of being an IRA targeter – a role crucial to the success of any terrorist campaign. The PSNI wanted me to sign an affidavit, and go to court to give evidence in person.
The IRA had a track record of intimidating witnesses to stop trials, so the PSNI was anxious about my appearing there. After years of preparation the trial finally took place. The defendant was convicted. Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, he was then immediately released. This was intensely irritating, but entirely understandable. For his crimes, the targeter should have spent the rest of his life in jail. Yet in the broader context of keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, releasing him was the right thing to do.
I have had my differences with Larkin, but on this occasion his is the course of wisdom. No one is asking victims’ families to forgive, and certainly not to forget. However, there comes a time when we should accept that no matter how many more investigations we hold, or how many witnesses we call, or how much money we spend , they are unlikely to achieve anything more of use. That time has come. For Northern Ireland, the path to lasting peace lies in looking to the future, not raking up the past.