Sinn Féin’s big battle could be in ‘the past’

Posted By: January 06, 2016

Brian Feeney. Irish News Belfast). Wednesday, January 6, 2016 

Abrief flurry over the holidays about the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) gives an indication of the immense task facing Sinn Féin in their attempt to drag our proconsul into compliance with the European Court of Human Rights requirements about killings here during the Troubles.

Sinn Féin are due to meet the proconsul soon to try to make progress on the aspect of the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement people call ‘the past’.

The British have blocked movement by introducing the notoriously specious ‘national security’ criterion into the arrangements agreed in 2014. The DUP are happy with that of course because some of their friends in the RUC, UDR and loyalist paramilitary gangs will be implicated so it is left to Sinn Féin to press the case for justice.

IHAT was set up in 2010 to investigate accusations now totalling 280 unlawful killings (mainly in British custody) and 1,235 of torture and mistreatment by British forces in Iraq 2003-9. Its head, retired detective Mark Warwick, leads a team of 145. Lawyers and human rights groups have spent the last five years jumping through the same hoops as their counterparts here attempting to compel the Ministry of Defence to fulfil its obligation to conduct an ECHR compliant investigation.

Originally the IHAT team set up by the Ministry of Defence included military police (RMP), many of whom had been in Iraq and some of whom had already been involved in investigations about conduct in Iraq. Sound familiar? Lawyers had to fight the Ministry of Defence all the way to the court of appeal to have the RMP removed only to see them replaced by Royal Navy police.

There is an obvious reason but no logical reason for forces personnel to be involved considering the majority of IHAT are retired detectives.

IHAT is not exactly galloping along. So far there has been no prosecution. One soldier has been fined £3,000 by the Services Prosecution, not IHAT. After five years only twenty-five killings have been investigated and only 45 out of 1,235 allegations of torture and rape are under investigation. Mr Warwick says in ‘twelve or eighteen months’ he’ll be able to decide if 2019 is a realistic date to conclude the investigations. At the present rate 2039 seems more realistic.

Warwick is not being encouraged by this awful British government. The current defence secretary Michael Fallon, a distinctly unmilitary but gung-ho figure is positively hostile to the whole process. He condemned ‘ambulance-chasing British law firms’ for increasing the number of allegations and claims for compensation. He added: “It is not only extremely expensive but it inhibits the operational effectiveness of our troops because they start to worry about whether they will end up in a court or not.’’

Of course they could stop torturing captives and killing non-combatants.

Fallon is one of those in the Conservative government who tends to blame the whole process on the ECHR which he would like to replace. The British government never admits that apart from its reluctant dilly-dallying with ECHR the International Criminal Court is also investigating allegations of war crimes in the cases of 1,200 Iraqis who claim torture and mistreatment and fifty deaths in custody. That’s all coming down the road.

People here tend to take a worm’s eye view of such matters as if some Historical Investigation Unit here is important to the British, or anyone else come to that. It’s not. It was unremarkable that during the flurry about IHAT dragging on inconclusively for years no newspaper or media outlet referred to the British government’s similar procrastination tactics here. Unremarkable because hardly anyone in Britain cares tuppence about what happens here.

So Sinn Féin are up against it. It’s difficult to see what kind of pressure they can exert on a government that is so opposed to the ECHR it thumbs its nose at it. No good appealing to the Americans who don’t recognise any international court when it comes to their armed forces who happily kill, torture, kidnap and imprison illegally with impunity.

It seems the only option is to use the British courts against the government’s stonewalling but that takes years. After all, some inquests still haven’t be held after over 30 years.