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Brian Rowan: The question now re any amnesty in the North is whether Johnson can be trusted

The former BBC correspondent and author looks at a week where the UK prime minister set the cat among the pigeons in the North.

Brian Rowan

IT HAS BEEN the long war in the peace – the fight for the Past; for the so-called ‘truth’ of the conflict years.

The political effort to shape some legacy process in the North has been a 14-year work-in-progress, involving never-ending consultations, negotiations, proposals and agreements that, then, become disagreements.

That past is a ‘mass grave’, described as such by the senior Northern Ireland police officer Tim Mairs – now an assistant chief constable with Police Scotland, and on a journey, at pace, to the highest rank.

In this description of a ‘mass grave’, he is thinking about the hurts of those conflict years, the competing narratives of what happened and why, the unanswered questions and how the past is always in our present.

The amnesty question

That 14-year journey since the first consultation began in 2007 has never been on a straight road – too many dead ends and no route yet from argument to agreement.

This week, there has been another row over the outline of the latest UK Government thinking – a legacy process that would not include prosecutions or prison.

The reports in both The Times and The Daily Telegraph have been described as “well informed”; and confirmed to me as accurately representing the direction of travel. It reads like an amnesty – some drawing of a line that has become the next battle and the new trenches in the here-and-now.

In a Twitter post, the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney could not have been clearer.

The SHA, or Stormont House Agreement of 2014, has not been implemented. Its framework is a Historical Investigations Unit and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, as well as story-telling and reconciliation elements.

Now, in a unilateral move, the UK Government wants to rearrange that furniture.

Part of this will involve a new independent body to establish facts and to report to families. The new emphasis will be on information and the higher goal of reconciliation.

In the poisonous atmosphere of Northern Ireland in 2021, there is little sign of healing – more rancour than reconciliation.

Lack of trust

Unionist fears are about the future of the Union, damaged by a post-Brexit Irish Sea border. Fears also about a border poll.

All of this has become a blame game; most obvious in the fallout within the DUP. This day next week, that party will choose its next leader – the Stormont MLA and minister Edwin Poots or Westminster leader and MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

There is a mood in the wider unionist/loyalist community to pull Stormont down and fight an early election on these fears about the Union in the hope of energising the vote.

The pandemic is the thread on which the Northern Executive hangs.

Now, this legacy row.

It has been my long-held view that an amnesty is the only way to achieve a meaningful information or ‘truth’ process. Is this why the UK Government is moving to end prosecutions and jail? Or is it just about protecting military veterans who served in Northern Ireland – creating an escape route from scrutiny?

Prisoners were released as part of the peace process; a statement that the wars were over. In my book Political Purgatory, the republican Leo Green, who was part of the 1980 hunger strike and at one time Sinn Féin’s political director at Stormont, comments:

The imprisonment of anyone – republican, loyalist, British Army/UDR or RUC personnel – for conflict-related offences is directly at odds with the prisoner release provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and can only impede rather than facilitate truth recovery.

Green no longer speaks for Sinn Féin, but he is right and, now, the UK Government is moving to that position. But Boris Johnson and his government are not trusted. What is their motivation?

Is it really about helping achieve a meaningful information process or is it in the self-interest of protecting troops?

On Wednesday on Twitter, I wrote the following:

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That war will continue – its ‘mass grave’ a reminder of those conflict years and a peace that is always a fight and an argument.

Brian Rowan is author of Political Purgatory – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland. Published by Merrion Press.


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Brian Rowan

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