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Northern Ireland: in the balance

10 min read

How to deal with Northern Ireland is one the biggest conundrums in the government’s in-tray. Plans to grant amnesty to British soldiers are mired in controversy, while the trade border is continuing to disrupt day-to-day life. Adam Payne reports

The 37-year presence of British troops in Northern Ireland belongs in one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history. But when 110 British defence medics were deployed to hospitals in the province earlier this year to help combat the winter resurgence of the coronavirus, they were universally welcomed.

It was the first time Britain’s military personnel had been asked to respond to an emergency in Northern Ireland since violent clashes between Protestant and Catholic communities in 1969 – an episode now regarded as the beginning of the Troubles.

In April, 100 personnel were brought in to support Northern Ireland’s vaccine rollout. They followed a smaller contingent of British military given the terrible task last year of making space available in Stormont’s justice department to use as a temporary resting place for bodies in the event of funeral companies being overwhelmed by Covid-19.

Earlier in the pandemic, the government had decided not to send troops to assist with Northern Ireland’s pandemic response, amid warnings from Sinn Féin of potential community tensions.

However, Naomi Long, Northern Ireland’s justice minister and leader of the Alliance party, says there was “certainly no objection within the body politic” to the British army’s involvement more recently, and “no objection from mainstream republicanism either”. Unlike before, Sinn Féin didn’t oppose the health ministry’s call for military help in January.

Sending British personnel to Northern Ireland comes with significant risk, however. Defence officials decided it would be unsafe for British military personnel to attend certain hospitals as they would be targets for dissident republicans.

There are a number of active dissident republicans in Northern Ireland and their threat is currently classed as severe, meaning an attack is highly likely, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Security threats prevented personnel going to hospitals in traditionally nationalist areas, such as the Royal Victoria in Belfast and Londonderry’s Altnagelvin. It was a stark reminder that more than 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, several communities in Northern Ireland remain no-go zones for the British army.

“There’s no doubt that if somebody was identified as coming from the British army, they would be a target,” says Peter Sheridan, former head of crime operations at the PSNI, who spent years leading the fight against terrorism in the province.

“For dissident republicans, to be able to do something would send a message to the British government: leave. Unfortunately, that part of the conflict is still very much alive and well.”

The army officially withdrew from Northern Ireland in 2007 when Sinn Féin accepted the authority of the PSNI. It had been there for almost 40 years, much of that during the sectarian conflict which resulted in more than 3,500 deaths.

British troops in Northern Ireland today train for overseas deployment and don’t play an active security role beyond assisting the police with bomb threats – support which they provide to other police services across the UK.

There are currently 1,700 defence personnel stationed in Northern Ireland, according to the Ministry of Defence. Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim, is the headquarters of the British army in Northern Ireland and its 38th Brigade. They have another major base at Palace Barracks in Holywood, Co Down.

The government says continuing to have British army personnel in Northern Ireland is primarily about identity.

“It’s important to base personnel there so people know it’s part of the United Kingdom,” one defence official told The House.

This is a point the government is particularly keen to stress amid growing questions over the future of the union and with an Irish border poll now widely considered to have become a possibility, even if only a remote one.

Outbreaks of violence in loyalist parts of Belfast, Derry, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey this Easter sparked fears that Northern Ireland was at risk of returning to a level of disorder not seen since years before the British army withdrew.

The week of unrest, which saw vehicles petrol bombed and burnt, a press photographer assaulted by masked men and 102 police officers injured, was described as Northern Ireland’s worst in 20 years and prompted the Assembly to hold an emergency debate.

Clashes between Protestant and Catholic rioters at the Lanark Way interface in Belfast were particularly worrying, according to Alan McQuillan, a former PSNI assistant chief constable, as they were a flashback to sectarian violence of decades past and rather forgotten.

“They had a degree of sectarianism and it’s a long time since we’ve had sectarian riots,” he tells The House.

The violence was carried out predominantly by young people. Some were thought to have been encouraged by loyalist paramilitary organisations seeking to exploit anger in working-class Unionist communities over Brexit and the contentious decision of authorities not to prosecute Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral of ex-IRA chief Bobby Storey last summer.

There are fears in Northern Ireland that with the post-Brexit Protocol – which created a trade border with Great Britain – continuing to disrupt day-to-day trade, and the UK government and European Union seemingly a long way from agreeing ways of minimising its impact, there could be violence on the streets again this summer.

Some fear this would be more serious than the outbreaks earlier this year, particularly when combined with the mid-July peak of the marching season.

McQuillan tells The House that while the Easter unrest was “three or four out of 10” in terms of severity, “there is potential for it to escalate” in the coming weeks.

“There is a feeling among some more reactionary elements of Unionism that the rights of their side of the community have been completely overridden by the rights of the other, and that’s clearly a very dangerous situation,” he says.

Community worker Jackie Redpath, chief executive of the Greater Shankill Partnership, says tensions in strongly Unionist areas like Shankill, west Belfast, could “erupt” this summer, telling The House that he expected some parades to take place without legal permission.

“There’s political instability and there’s instability on the streets,” he says, sitting in the Spectrum Centre on Shankill Road. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that it’s a dangerous situation. I don’t see people actively planning violence. But it’s a powder keg that has been created here.”

There’s political instability and there’s instability on the streets

The British army’s near four-decade stay in Northern Ireland may have to come to an end nearly 15 years ago but many crimes committed during the Troubles remain unresolved, and Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to find a way to deliver justice for victims.

How to deal with the legacy of the Troubles is among the biggest conundrums in the government’s in-tray, with emotions high on all sides. A leaked plan to grant amnesty to British soldiers accused of crimes prior to 1998 triggered widespread consternation in Northern Ireland and forced ministers to quickly backtrack.

On the other side of the debate, Conservative MP Johnny Mercer resigned as defence minister in April, criticising the government of not doing enough to protect accused veterans.

The Queen’s Speech on 11 May said the updated proposal would be announced in “the coming weeks” but victims are still waiting for details.

The government says the current system is “not working well for anybody”, with cases rarely leading to convictions and not enough victims’ families discovering the truth. The new system “must address the needs of victims and veterans together,” the government says.

Lord Hain, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, says the government’s initial plan to grant amnesty to British soldiers accused of committing crimes during the Troubles is “not going to stand up and would probably be open to judicial review”.

He says ministers should look to replicate the reconciliation model of Operation Kenova – a project led by former chief constable Jon Boutcher which conducts independent investigations into historic crimes with the primary objective of establishing the truth. It is currently investigating the murder of three RUC officers in County Armagh in 1982.

No one can be above the law and beyond accountability

“Victims have been supportive of the project because they’ve seen the opportunity for the truth to be recovered, but in an open and inclusive way,” Hain says.

The project does not rule out prosecution, the Labour peer stresses. “If sufficient evidence is uncovered to pursue prosecution, then they will take it forward. Excluding prosecution is not acceptable.”

Sheridan, who left the PSNI in 2002 to become chief executive of the peace-building organisation Co-operation Ireland, understands why the government has struggled with legacy issues, saying addressing all needs while complying with the law is a near-impossible task.

“There’s a perception that everybody wants to see people in court, but that’s not accurate,” he tells The House. “Some people want prosecutions, but others are happy to have moved on in their lives knowing things won’t be resolved. Other people just want to know the truth.”

Sheridan uses the example of John Proctor, a former police colleague shot dead by the IRA in 1981. Proctor was targeted outside the hospital where he had been visiting his wife and newborn baby. DNA on a cigarette butt found at the scene led to his killer being convicted more than 30 years later.

“Under the Good Friday agreement, the most he’ll do in prison is two years – is that justice?

“Worse than that, the widow discovered in court that somebody in the hospital contacted the gunman to say he was leaving, so naturally she wants to know who it was.

“She had also believed up until the court case that her husband had died right away, but she discovered that he had been alive for a period of time and kept calling her name,” he says. “Rather than providing closure, you can retraumatise people.”

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, expresses widespread concern that the UK government may be planning to exclude Northern Ireland veterans from prosecution.

“No one can be above the law and beyond accountability,” she says. “Reports around this upcoming legacy bill indicate this will be the latest gross betrayal of victims who remain determined to seeking the truth, justice and accountability to which they are entitled.”

Teggart is spearheading legal action demanding an independent investigation into alleged torture by British army personnel in 1971. Fourteen so-called “Hooded Men” say they were beaten, deprived of sleep, food and water, forced into stress positions and to listen to white noise, and thrown to the ground from low-flying helicopters. The UK government has always denied the allegations.

Long, speaking to The House from her Stormont office, accepts there will probably never be justice in most legacy cases, with the passage of time making prosecutions increasingly difficult.

However, she says it is paramount that legal action is available in the few cases where justice is possible.

“I firmly believe that if somebody committed a crime, whether they were a soldier or a paramilitary, they should face consequences for that, no matter how long it takes.”

For all their work helping Northern Ireland fight coronavirus, it is clear the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland will remain controversial – and risky – for some time to come.

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