Voices are growing within the British establishment for an amnesty for perpetrators of state violence. Eamonn McCann takes a look at the background to these demands, and the tangled web of negotiations between the British State and Sinn Féin.
We are undergoing another bout of argy-bargy about the possibility of British soldiers being brought before the courts for crimes committed during the Troubles.
At the same time, Republicans continue to be aggrieved that amnesty for IRA members “on the run” (OTRs) has not been conceded.
Interventions from Top Brass
The most arrogant intervention came, not unexpectedly, from Britain’s top soldier, General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the general staff. He told the press on August 3rd last that individual soldiers involved in wrongdoing could not expect immunity – but that he would vigorously oppose soldiers being pursued by people with “vexatious claims…That will not happen on my watch. Absolutely not.” Carter did not explain how he proposed to sort out which soldiers faced vexatious claims, and which had been caught bang to rights.
The law says that the question of charging soldiers—or anybody—is up to the prosecution authorities. The question whether allegations are “vexatious” is for the courts to decide. But normal rules apparently don’t apply to the top brass.
A more egregious example came just four days after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, declared that there would be “mass resignations” from the armed forces if Corbyn became prime minister. This was little short of a call to mutiny. Senior Tory MPs and right-wing newspapers chorused their support.
The most obvious precedent is the March 1914 Curragh Mutiny. As the Ulster Volunteer Force imported arms from Germany and mobilised against the prospect of Home Rule, an array of officers based at the Curragh – the British army’s Irish headquarters at the time – declared that they would disobey any order to move against the Unionist rebels. Senior Tories and right-wing newspapers backed them up. Same as ever.
Sinn Féin/British Government Agreement
Sinn Féin’s call for amnesty for OTRs is not a mirror-image of the Carter/Zambellas demands. The British establishment could never countenance their forces being equated with “terrorists.” On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that Sinn Féin would accept amnesty for soldiers if OTRs were guaranteed the same deal.
Negotiations between the British Government and Sinn Féin on the OTR anomaly have continued since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. The Agreement included release of convicted IRA and Loyalist prisoners but made no provision for volunteers who had fled the jurisdiction. This omission would have to be repaired, insisted Sinn Féin, logically enough.
Devising a law or procedure which would allow OTRs to go free if they returned to the North was to prove politically difficult, in face of predictable unionist and Tory outrage.
On November 9th 2005, draft legislation to cater for OTRs was published – the Northern Ireland Offences Bill. The terms of the Bill had been in the hands of all the main NI parties since September 29th. These made clear that the amnesty would be open to anyone charged with an offence committed prior to the signing of the Agreement. That is to say, to Loyalist paramilitaries and British forces as well as IRA volunteers.
The day before publication, Sinn Féin representative Conor Murphy travelled to London to be on the spot as the document was unveiled. The Sinn Féin ‘paper, An Phoblacht, reported on November 10th:
“Legislation dealing with the issue of ‘On The Runs’ (OTRs) has been published by the British Government and has been broadly welcomed by Sinn Féin.
“The proposals cover around 150 people ‘on the run’ since the introduction of Internment in the 1970s. Since the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government has continued to refuse to let many people return to the North without facing imprisonment.
“The new legislation would allow men and women to have their cases heard by a special tribunal. If found guilty, they would be freed on licence…
“Speaking from London…Conor Murphy said it was past time for both Governments to address the matter. ‘This is an outstanding issue, an anomaly from the Good Friday Agreement,’ he told An Phoblacht. ‘These people would have been freed as part of the early release scheme, so it makes no sense for them to still be sought by the authorities.”
There was no suggestion in An Phoblacht that SF might reject the legislation because it would apply to British soldiers, including the Bloody Sunday shooters, and Loyalists, as well as to Republican OTRs.
On the same day, BBC News listed those who would be eligible for amnesty. “This could be a paramilitary on-the-run, someone living in Northern Ireland who is charged with an offence before 1998 or a member of the security forces accused of an offence committed when they were combating terrorism.”
Neither Sinn Féin nor anybody else challenged this characterisation. The point was amplified in the most authoritative statement of the Sinn Féin position, from Martin McGuinness in an interview at the time with the BBC NI current affairs programme “Hearts and Minds.” The relevant passages are worth quoting in full.
McGuinness Defends the Deal
Presenter Noel Thompson:
“Let’s start with OTRs first. (SDLP leader) Mark Durkan says you entered into an ‘alliance of sleaze’ with the government which has delivered, secured an amnesty for the security forces. Are you proud of that?”
“When this began its life it was on the basis of On the Runs, and On the Runs specifically referred to Nationalists and Republicans who found themselves in difficult circumstances for over 30 years. How many RUC men/UDR men or British soldiers could have been described as On the Runs? None. Why was that? Simply because they were fortunate in having an undeclared amnesty bestowed upon them by successive British Governments.”
“And now you have that written on paper.”
“Well how many of them will come forward to avail of that situation? The people who will gain most advantage from this are those Nationalists and Republicans who are on the run for over 30 years. I don’t envisage that any people who were involved in the murders of Nationalists, and Mark knows this better than I do, is ever going to be brought before a court in this day and age.”
“But you’ve taken that possibility away from victims?”
“Victims and relatives know, for example in the case of the Bloody Sunday families, the British Army was effectively marched up to Buckingham Palace and were decorated by the British Queen for their activities in Derry that day. So what’s the likelihood of those people being brought before a court…?
“Mark Durkan is pointing out that it is you who are putting them in that position by giving an amnesty to security forces. He wants their voices to be heard.”
“Well, Mark is very naive then if that is the case, because these people have effectively had an undeclared amnesty for over 30 years…How many soldiers or RUC men have appeared before court for murders of 100s of Catholics and Nationalists that have taken place over the years? Few and far between.”
“And now they never will.”
“They never would in my opinion. Anyone from the broad Nationalist/Republican constituency knows that the State always defends its service people. Those people who were involved, even in the importation of arms from South Africa – what possibility is there that these people would ever stand before a court? I think there is no possibility whatsoever. I am not as naive as Mark appears to be…”
The implication of this is crystal clear. There would be no Republican objection to a scheme which amnestied the OTRs as well as British forces.
“Sleight of hand”
It wasn’t until December 20th that Pat Doherty announced the party’s withdrawal of support. He accused the British Government of “sleight of hand.”
But there had been no sleight of hand, as Martin McGuinness’s interview had confirmed. Sinn Féin had been willing to accept the Bill as it stood. The reason they changed their tune was that bereaved families, most stridently members of the Bloody Sunday families, told them in no uncertain terms to forget it.
Northern Secretary Pater Hain told the Commons that he was withdrawing the Bill because it didn’t have sufficient support to go forward. Sinn Féin had been the only Northern party to support the measure. The Sinn Féin change of position meant that no major party in the North now endorsed it.
The issue returned to the headlines in February 2014 when John Downey, charged with involvement in the 1992 Hyde Park bombing in which four British soldiers were killed, was released after it emerged at the Old Bailey that he had been given a “letter of comfort” guaranteeing that he wouldn’t face trial.
It then became clear that around 130 Republican OTRs had received similar letters. But because the arrangement had been kept strictly secret, there had been no political or public protest.
Tory back benches and Right-wing media outlets went purple-faced with rage when the OTR scheme was revealed. This initiative, too, died the death.
And there, although nobody could be certain what was going on behind the scenes, the matter seemed to rest – until General Carter and his co-thinkers in politics and the media became exercised about the police probe of the soldiers’ role.
On April 4th 2018, the Public Prosecution Service announced that it was considering charges ranging from murder to attempted murder to perjury against 18 of the Bloody Sunday soldiers. Complaints arose again that soldiers were being “targeted” while Republicans were being treated with kid gloves.
The official statistics give the lie to this claim. PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “Our figures are out there, the facts speak for themselves. About 30 percent of our caseload within legacy investigations branch (are) focused on former military personnel, so-called state actors.”
And, therefore, 70 percent are focused on Republicans and Loyalists. Carter and his colleagues don’t have a case.
Nevertheless, the re-erupted controversy ensures that the issue will continue to poison politics in the North into the future.
There is an honest and honourable approach available to Sinn Féin, which, perhaps, as circumstances change, it will feel able to put forward.
When a war—and that’s how Republicans defined the conflict—comes to an end, it is the first duty of the leaders of any set of combatants to ensure that their soldiers are brought safely home.
A Socialist Approach
The problem is that this isn’t the perspective in which Sinn Féin has campaigned for the OTRs. Their demand is presented now as a necessary step, not towards the Republic for which the war was fought, but towards peace and reconciliation within the North. Herein lies the contradiction in their handling of the OTR issue.
Socialists come at the issue from a different perspective. British soldiers, for all the individual tragedies of the deaths of more than 300 of their number, mostly, as ever, young working-class men of the rank-and-file, are representatives of a State with a colonial past, including in Ireland, and a continuing violent record of repression across the world.
In the end, for all our fundamental political differences with Sinn Féin, we continue to argue that there is no equivalence between the two sides.
But as the be-ribboned rogues of the officer class parade to and fro to Downing Street or Belfast City Hall, keeping the issue alive and enjoying the support of the capitalist State, Sinn Féin has some thinking to do about its role in relation to OTRs.