Labour is reopening the old wounds of the Troubles

Hilary Benn
Hilary Benn

A Labour government is back in town and talking to Sinn Fein and the Irish government about justice. The human rights vultures are circling, and their prime victims – serving or retired uniformed servants of the British state – are once more having sleepless nights while enemies of the British state cheer on the lawyers. And loyal people will once again feel that the whole legal system has been skewed against them.

The issue of the moment is that Hilary Benn, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had announced his intention to ditch the Legacy Act which involves a conditional amnesty and a ban on inquests and future civil actions for people accused of Troubles-related crimes – that is, pre the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

This came about because the government felt it was time to draw a line to remove the fear lived under by old soldiers and policemen who are periodically threatened with being – and sometimes actually are – hauled into court to face charges of murder from decades ago.

Of course sometimes the same applies to terrorists, but rarely. The security forces are vulnerable because their organisations keep records. Terrorists don’t. Soldiers and cops give evidence against bad colleagues. Terrorists rigidly observe omerta. And, what’s more, the IRA have been brilliant about leaving no forensic traces.

And since money is no object for them because of their treasure chest from robberies and fraud, they have been able to assemble armies of able lawyers who are additionally brilliant at squeezing vast amounts out of legal aid to sue the government and its servants.

So it’s almost impossible to get convictions for terrorist crimes.

It isn’t like that for the old soldiers. Those soldiers and police who prevented the province from descending into civil war continue to have their courage and hard work traduced by people who wanted to destroy the state and by nationalists who drank the Kool-Aid ladled out by murderers and their apologists.

So, hugely disproportionately, the law has pursued its guardians rather than its enemies.

I’m not suggesting that there were no bad soldiers or cops. But what is a simple fact is that most terrorists get up in the morning planning to kill; most soldiers and cops believe their job is to save lives.

Various political parties lined up to oppose the Legacy and Reconciliation Act as it went through parliament in 2022-23, some for absolutist reasons about justice and the SDLP and Alliance because they thought it favoured state forces, although state killings have been less that 10 per cent of the total. Sinn Fein, of course, were thundering about injustice from outside Westminster.

The government did its best with the establishment of the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recover (ICRIR), headed by the former lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan.

Yet there were myriad other protests and complaints coming from all directions, and then the Irish government weighed in by taking a case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, alleging the Act is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I hope the Secretary of State is bearing in mind that: it has emerged from state papers that Sinn Fein were endlessly demanding that there should be immunity from criminal prosecution for un-convicted IRA members; that hundreds of comfort letters were given to “On the Runs”, which left murderers free to return from hiding; the Irish ex-Justice Minister Michael McDowell wrote in 2021 that the Irish government in which he served established a de facto moratorium on investigation and prosecution of IRA members; when murderers were arrested south of the border as they skipped merrily home after killing their neighbours, 102 requests for extradition were turned down, leaving the perpetrators to kill with impunity. The British government could yet go to court over that.

Hilary Benn has now shown some signs of playing for time by admitting that Sir Declan Morgan’s handling of his new job is encouraging. This would be a good time to persuade the Irish government that the new government don’t want pointless arguments but two could play at legal games. Let the old soldiers sleep in peace.