Disappointing for Bloody Sunday relatives but they will press on

Posted By: March 15, 2019

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast.Friday, March 15, 2019. 
LONG before they went on the rampage in Derry in January 1972 the British army’s Parachute Regiment had established its infamous reputation in Belfast, not least in the murderous events in Ballymurphy in August 1971.

The Paras were a byword for savagery, brutality, stupidity, and provocation. They inflicted gratuitous violence on passers-by in the streets, smashed windows in peoples’ homes with batons or rifle butts, and fired rubber bullets into living rooms. They should never have been deployed against civilians. There was no situation they could not make worse by their presence.

It’s fitting therefore that the decision to prosecute even one former member of the regiment for actions on Bloody Sunday complicates the situation about the prosecution of former members of the security forces. Like everything else about the Paras, they arrive at an inconvenient moment.

The British government, clearly, to use Theresa May’s favorite word, does not want to prosecute former soldiers. Ministers, including May, have been wrestling with ways to avoid it. In her usual inept way, our current excuse for a proconsul, Blundering Bradley, let the cat out of the bag last week when she said killings by security forces weren’t crimes. As she said lamely afterward, she didn’t mean what she said, but we all have a pretty good idea what she did mean to say.

A couple of straws in the wind indicate British intentions. On Monday our proconsul, answering a planted question from a Conservative MP, said the government proposed to extend the 1998 Sentences Act back to 1968 instead of 1973.

It provides for release in two years of anyone convicted of a Troubles-related offense. Obviously, this is a pre-emptive strike in case any former soldier is convicted of an offense pre-1973, like someone from the Paras maybe.

Secondly, the British defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, has written to former soldiers assuring them that, in the event of prosecution, their defense would be, ‘entirely at the ministry of defense’s expense’.

They can select their own lawyers and retain them, astonishingly, ‘without limit of time or cap on expenditure’. His letter was sent just before the Brexit vote on Tuesday night but failed to prevent the defeat of Theresa May’s deal. Significantly the letter goes on to say that the Ministry of Defense is looking for legislative changes to protect soldiers against prosecution. That has proved legally impossible – so far.

Now that yesterday’s prosecution has been announced, at a bad moment for the Brexit-beleaguered British government, it creates difficulties.

Faced with a well-funded campaign by powerful Tory opponents, how can a Tory government subsequently make arrangements for others not to be prosecuted? The only solution is amnesty, but again, that would have to be for all, including IRA and loyalists, otherwise, it would be illegal.

Alternatively, the British government has been toying with the idea of a statute of limitation, but that would also have to apply to all. It’s not a new idea. Tony Blair nearly got away with it in 2006, but Sinn Féin wouldn’t allow it to apply to soldiers, so it failed.

The only remaining solution is to implement the Stormont House Agreement on the past which allows what is in effect an amnesty; there’s a provision where a perpetrator confesses all without fear of prosecution. Unionists don’t like that because it lets the IRA off the hook. So, deadlock.

Yesterday was a disappointing day for the Derry relatives of the killed and injured of Bloody Sunday who will press on. However, it produced predictable uproar in the usual quarters in England which has caused infinite complications for future prosecutions. British governments have decided they are too costly politically to risk. Law requires it. What to do?