PLATFORM: Desmond Rea: Legacy – when is the right time to draw a line?
In what appears to be a well-informed “ leak, ” The Times of May 6 said the following: Soldiers and terrorists should be granted immunity from prosecution (for actions taken during the unrest in connection with plans to draw a line in the past) and ministers are planning a Mandela-style truth and reconciliation process.
Regarding the first, it would appear that the ministers intend to introduce a limitation period; although the mention of intention in the Queen’s speech was remarkably brief.
In examining the UK Government’s proposals as they surface it is imperative that we remember the scale of the deaths and to what ‘organization’ attributed, also the injuries caused during the unrest and here I draw inspiration from the report of the advisory group on the past, which noted that as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 2001.
Of the 3,523 killed, 2,055 (58%) were attributed to Republican paramilitary groups, 1,020 (29%) to loyalist paramilitary groups, 368 (10%) to security forces.
Those killed were civilians (1,855); security forces (1,123); Republican paramilitaries (394); and loyalist paramilitaries (151) as well as some 47,000 people were injured in 16,200 bombings and 37,000 shootings.
On May 11 – the same date the Queen gave her speech – a coroner concluded that ten civilians killed at Ballymurphy during three days of violence in August 1971 during a military operation were “ entirely innocent ”.
Although this is a welcome judgment for the families of the victims, their pain is still deep.
On August 8, 2007, I was invited as chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Council to join a panel at the West Belfast Festival.
The first question through the Chair was addressed to me: “Professor Rea, I am the son of Patrick Finucane. Your opinion of dealing with the past is well known, but where does it leave me and my family? ”
I replied as follows: “Firstly, I must say that ‘inheritance’ is the only area in which I have requested and been granted permission to address by the Police Council of Northern Ireland as long as I declare that I speak for myself and not for the Council and I am speaking now.
“Secondly, I sympathize with you, your mother and your family in the death of your father, but everywhere I go in Northern Ireland I encounter a similar pain, whether it is the parents of the Omagh bombing or the widows of RUC / PSNI officers. I see no hierarchy in death.
“Third, I joined the peace process on the terms of Sinn Féin, whom I understand to be Sinn Féin argued that its paramilitary wing, namely PIRA: was an army and not terrorists; was engaged in war; and that since the unrest was a war, prisoners of war must be released.
I am referring to Annex B of the Good Friday Agreement. [ I then put to the audience – and I had noted that the audience included the then leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams – the following Question]: Doesn’t that mean that the two governments have accepted Sinn Féin’s argument?
(No one in an audience of 800 disagreed.)
Fourth, in a war nasty things happen on both sides. I have no doubt that collusion took place.
Although it can be argued that more can be expected from a state – (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights) – it would seem dishonest to do so.
If, as Sinn Féin argued, and was implicitly accepted by both governments, the PIRAs were engaged in war and not terrorism.
As a result, I would say that from the Good Friday Accord onwards, the list should be cleaned up and our society should embrace the future; the release of prisoners should be extended to immunity from prosecution for former members of the security forces and former paramilitaries; there should no longer be any “legacy” surveys; and our concern should be with the victims of “troubles” at their points of need and to respond to those needs generously and as quickly as possible.
To the above I will now add that Northern Ireland should draw a line in a national act of contrition.
In the Queen’s speech, the May 6 leak is confirmed to be correct and as such, it is an implicit acceptance by the UK government of Sinn Féin’s argument that the ‘Troubles’ ‘were a war, that the paramilitaries were soldiers, that the investigation of (the former) attributed paramilitary assassinations is extremely difficult and costly, that the focus on the alleged assassinations of the security forces is unfair and that what is proposed is reasonable and fair. I agree. Shouldn’t the Irish government (and the US administration) do the same?
:: Professor Sir Desmond Rea was the first Chairman of the Police Council of Northern Ireland and is also a former Chairman of the Local Government Staff Commission and the Labor Relations Agency