Amnesty plan risks more harm than cure
The UK government’s plan to introduce a statute of limitations to end all unrest-related prosecutions before 1998 is of deep concern, as it lacks both substance and process.
The five political parties that make up the Northern Ireland executive, along with many victims and survivors of the unrest, have condemned the approach, which would also end ongoing and future civil cases and investigations.
Opposition comes from across the political spectrum and from groups representing victims of both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, veterans and those killed by state forces.
The shared concern is that such a brutal move does not resolve the specific and systematic complexities and injustices of the Troubles.
The justice system, and trust in it, operates on the basis of fair law, specific facts and evidence, and serves the public interest.
There is a danger that instead of “drawing a line under the Troubles,” as Boris Johnson perhaps sincerely or naively hopes, it will only serve to further entrench the pains and injustices of the past.
The prevailing feeling is that it is wrong – legally, politically, morally – for the UK government, a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement, to attempt to act in this way.
Proposals to address some of the most urgent legacy impacts of the unrest were approved by executive parties and the UK and Irish governments as part of the Stormont House deal in December 2014. Although all victims and survivors did not disagreed with these proposals, representative groups were widely included and consulted at that time.
There is no doubt that the delays in implementation, partly due to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the pandemic, and partly due to posture and politics, have added to the trauma, frustration and growing urgency of the current situation.
The government’s latest plan, however, does not appear to be an attempt to speed things up for victims and survivors. It seeks to unilaterally derogate from both the Stormont House agreement and devolution.
As we in the Evangelical Alliance – along with others – warned when abortion legislation was introduced, a disturbing precedent was set and a pattern is now emerging around how government UK deals with politically sensitive issues in Northern Ireland.
Justice and truth
We need an honest public conversation about justice, where realistic expectations and hopes can be discussed.
What is the relationship between truth and justice? How far can justice without truth go? What is the role of the state in this regard and how can it be appropriately held accountable alongside other groups in the conflict?
What does justice look like if someone is found guilty of killing one person, five people, or 15 people after the Good Friday Agreement? How retributive is this justice? How repairer?
Evidently, with each passing year and the loss of witnesses and memories, the likelihood of successful prosecutions decreases, and not just for crimes related to unrest.
Civil lawsuits and public inquiries are expensive and do not lend themselves to most cases of death and injury caused during unrest. Even with “success”, as in the case of the Ballymurphy families, the apology, truth and restitution are difficult to navigate.
However, it is quite another thing to prohibit the very examination of the prosecution of justice by the criminal or civil courts, even when there is a slim chance of success.
In my opinion, this move by the British government seems to risk more harm than cure. It’s a reminder of how the past continues to stalk our society as a present reality both in terms of public policy and personal experience.
Although it is often impossible to ‘draw the past away’, it is important to recognize a good and genuine desire, shared by many living in Northern Ireland, to go beyond the Troubles as a our defining history.
These are difficult and important things and go well beyond the role of government in highlighting the urgent need for the integration of Christian peacemaking ministry in Northern Ireland.
The followers of Jesus in South Africa, Rwanda, Serbia, and many other places tried to navigate these difficult spaces between our current earthly boundaries around righteousness and the hope of redemption in the new heavens and the new. Earth.
I remember hearing an African pastor talk about how the cross of Jesus transforms and transcends these moments in a very real way.
In any conflict, “victims” and “perpetrators” are linked by blood. Many victims will never receive justice in this lifetime or will never hear the word “sorry”. Many abusers will never receive forgiveness in this lifetime or will never hear the word “forgiveness”.
In the cross, however, justice and mercy meet. The victim discovers that the blood of Jesus promises justice for the sins committed against her. The author discovers that the blood of Jesus offers redemption for the sins they have committed against God and others.
This is not an amnesty – the victim and the perpetrator are always related by blood, but it is the blood of Christ that offers the promise of new identities and relationships in this life and the next.
It is this spiritual but tangible shift where I can see the most urgent role for the church in the days and years to come – this connection of hope for the future and healing in the present.
The ability to broaden the horizons of what is humanly possible in the space where politics and law can only take us so far towards reconciliation.
Truth, justice, forgiveness, redemption – this is the language of the gospel. Good news proclaimed and demonstrated for our people here. Happy are the feet of those who bring this good news; now may we go like those who have been commissioned, walking carefully with wisdom and grace.
David Smyth is the head of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland.