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Where will this process of endless prosecutorial investigation into Northern Ireland’s past lead?

3 min read

The £150m earmarked for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles would be better spent funding the needs of those bereaved and survivors, rather than pursuing convictions, says Lord Hain


The image of a Catholic priest waving a bloodstained white handkerchief while trying to help a victim shot by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry remains a haunting memory from the terrible 30 years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

Thirteen people were shot dead during a civil rights march that day, 30 January 1972, and the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is prosecuting Soldier F, a former British soldier, over two such deaths.

However the PPS also said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute 16 other soldiers and two Official IRA men.

Clearly police and prosecutors must follow the evidence and prosecute if it is robust. But the case beckons a much more fundamental question raised last year with the government by eight peers, myself included, each with government or other senior service in Northern Ireland.

Namely: where is this process of endless prosecutorial investigation into Northern Ireland’s past leading?

Of course many victims and others attach great importance to legally pursuing those responsible for the appalling loss they have suffered – and their views clearly deserve the utmost respect.

But the Historical Enquiries Team of 2006-14 completed work on 1,615 cases involving more than 2,000 deaths. Only 17 were referred to the PPS and only three resulted in prosecutions and convictions for murder: 3 out of 1,615 or 0.2%.

The new Historical Investigations Unit will examine 1,700 deaths over five years. Why should it be more successful after the extra passage of time – stretching back up to 50 years including the death from natural causes of people who were in one way or another involved? Is the £150m the government has now promised really the best possible use of that money?

Surely there are much more effective ways of helping victims and discovering information to explain the loss of loved ones? Indeed, Bloody Sunday victims welcomed the apology by David Cameron in 2010 – the most fulsome and profuse apology ever given by a British prime minister – after the exhaustive Saville report had trenchantly criticised the state and the security forces

As the Bloody Sunday investigation shows, prosecutions are being considered for former (often long-retired) members of the armed forces – perhaps because records and information are more readily available, unlike for former paramilitaries.

That cannot be right. It is essential to treat past cases in an absolutely even-handed manner. But that also means former military personnel cannot be exempt (as some, including it seems defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, are suggesting) while other former combatants, either loyalist or republican, are pursued.

Where will all this end?

Remember the politically destabilising farce of one of the key architects of the peace process, former Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, being arrested in May 2014, detained for several days with media speculation on an intense scale, and then predictably released.

Currently, we are witnessing a massive diversion of resources into investigating old crimes with no prospect of a successful outcome, with many elderly citizens – currently retired soldiers and police officers – being distressed by protracted inquiries.

The priority is surely now to use the £150m the government is offering to resource victims, not prosecutions that have little or no likelihood of delivering satisfactory closure. A good start would be to fund the pension for the nearly 500 severely injured demanded by the Wave Trauma Centre, and backed across all the benches in the Lords, costing just £5m.   

Lord Hain is a Labour peer and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland

 

 

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