Northern Ireland: Is Denying The Past Endangering The Future?

On July 24th, 2021, the BBC reported the UK’s proposal to abandon all current and future criminal prosecutions relating to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Between 1969 and 1998, more than 3,500 people died until the Good Friday Agreement peace deal was signed between the Catholic community, the Protestant community, and the British forces. In essence, the proposals entail an amnesty for all those responsible for the killings, serious injury, and torture that occurred during the Troubles. This would ban all legal investigations, including civil cases, tribunals, and inquiries, involving an estimated 1,500 cases, according to BBC. The Guardian has reported that approximately 3,000 killings carried out during the Troubles have never been solved or even investigated. It was also reported that in 2019, a Northern Ireland Office consultation found that a clear majority opposed an amnesty, believing that it could damage the process of reconciliation. 

Since their announcement, the proposals have been heavily opposed and criticized in Northern Ireland and internationally. The BBC noted that the Northern Ireland assembly, “in a rare show of unity, condemned the UK government’s plans to grant an unconditional amnesty for the crimes committed by security forces and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.” According to the Belfast Telegraph, representatives from all the major parties in Northern Ireland have signed a document stating that they reject the proposals. It was also reported that even some of the military veterans who would be protected by the proposals are opposed to a blanket immunity. Most notable though,  has been the outcry by victims and their families who strongly oppose the plans and express hurt and anger at the claim that such a proposal could foster reconciliation. Sandra Peake, who runs the Wave organisation for victims and survivors, noted that “to tell people who have suffered unimaginable grief and trauma that what happened to their loved ones is no longer of any interest to the state is perverse and obscene.”

On September 16th, Amnesty International made a submission to the UN stating that the UK government’s proposals are “an utter betrayal” of victims. Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, Grainne Teggart, urged “the United Nations Human Rights Council to challenge the government’s plans to shield perpetrators and permanently deny justice to all victims.” Particularly, Amnesty International argued that the proposals “unduly interfere with the justice system and undermine the rule of law.” Darragh Mackin, a solicitor representing one of the victims, spoke to The Irish Examiner, expressing that ‘what the government is trying to do is frightening, but I am confident it will be found to be in breach of the European convention on human rights.’

Still, Northern Ireland’s Secretary, Brandon Lewis, urged that, “23 years after the Good Friday peace accord, it was time to move on.” He added that removing the risk of prosecution would perhaps allow some people to tell the truth of their involvement in attacks. According to the Politico, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed support for the proposals, saying it would “enable Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles.” It has also been argued that moving on from constant inquiries and prosecutions would save millions of pounds that could be used better on reconciliation programs and other essential areas. 

Despite this, Al Jazeera commented that, “communities emerging from bitter conflict want and need to understand how to prevent it from recurring. How can a divided community look to the future if it cannot agree at all about its past?” Moreover, The Irish Times claimed that the new proposals represent “one of the most sweeping amnesties introduced in any jurisdiction since 1945” and are significantly more extensive than those brought in by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The British government has said that its approach is ‘conciliatory’, but according to the BBC “no group involved in the conflict, no political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, no victims’ group, and no human rights organisation agrees.” In fact, it appears to have put at risk the fragile peace in Northern Ireland and perhaps a more peaceful future.

Lola Perle