Irish terrorist murders ‘should be left unsolved’; Historic banquet at Windsor, but in Belfast there’s still a bitter taste

Irish terrorist murders ‘should be left unsolved’
Sean O’Neill Crime and Security Editor
The Times
April 7 2014

A de facto amnesty should be offered to terrorists who killed, bombed and maimed during Northern Ireland’s 30 years of violence, a former Northern Ireland Secretary said yesterday.

Peter Hain’s radical proposal, which would end any prospect of prosecutions in 3,000 unsolved murders from the Troubles, comes on the eve of the first Irish state visit to Britain.

President Higgins arrives in London today and will be welcomed by the Queen tomorrow. The Sinn Féin politician and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness — a former IRA commander — will attend the State Banquet at Windsor Castle.

The visit comes amid a spate of “cold-case” inquiries connected to the Troubles, and controversy over “comfort letters” given to on-the-run IRA members to protect them from prosecution.

Mr Hain, Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005-07, said he understood that his proposal would make victims and survivors of the Troubles “desperately angry” but argued that it was vital if Northern Ireland were to stop being “stalked” by its past.

“I think there should be an end to all conflict-related prosecutions,” he said. “That should apply to cases pre-dating the Good Friday agreement in 1998. This is not desirable in a normal situation. You would never dream of doing this in England, Scotland and Wales — but the Troubles were never normal.

“You can keep going back all the time and you can keep looking over your shoulder or turning around all the time, but what that does is take you away from addressing the issues of now and the issues of the future.”

Mr Hain said that political leaders in Northern Ireland urgently needed to face the legacy of the conflict, amid signs that dissident republicans are taking inspiration from the Taleban to use homemade rockets against the police.

He added: “This is not going to go away. It’s going to continue stalking the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the entire body politic there. The past just stalks them and they’re either going to confront it and deal with it together or they’re going to continue to be stalked by it.”

After the furore over letters to rule out prosecution for IRA fugitives, Mr Hain called last month for a halt to the criminal investigation into the Bloody Sunday shootings. His latest intervention goes farther, advocating an across-the-board end to investigation and prosecution of unsolved crimes by loyalist and republican paramilitaries and members of the security forces.

The former minister said that there had to be an even-handed process — a judicial tribunal or a truth-and-reconciliation commission — by which cases could be resolved without prosecutions.

He said: “A soldier potentially liable for prosecution who’s being investigated for Bloody Sunday has got to be treated in the same way by whatever process emerges as a former loyalist or republican responsible for a terrorist atrocity.”

Cases thrust back on to the agenda include a judicial examination of the letters given to IRA “on-the-runs” and criminal inquiries into three incidents from the Seventies: the IRA murder of Jean McConville; the killing by the British Army of 14 marchers on Bloody Sunday and the loyalist bombing of McGurk’s Bar, in which 15 people died.

Ivor Bell, 77, a former colleague of Mr McGuinness in the IRA leadership, will appear in court in Belfast on Friday charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Mrs McConville in 1972. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin President and one of the architects of the peace process, has had to deny allegations that he ordered Mrs McConville’s murder and has offered to speak to police about the case.

Mr Hain’s call echoes a similar proposal last year by John Larkin, Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General. It met stiff political opposition, with Peter Robinson, the Province’s First Minister, saying that it would allow people to “get away with murder”.

Many victims’ families are expected to react angrily, but William Frazer, a victims’ campaigner whose father was murdered by the IRA in 1975, said that his mind was not closed to any proposal that was fair. “We all need justice but a lot of us do realise that we will never get it,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on the right to justice. We all know we have to move on, but you can’t ask people to forgive if they don’t want to forgive and you can’t ask them to forget.”

Seamus McKendry, the husband of Mrs McConville’s daughter Helen, said: “I don’t agree but I understand where he’s coming from. You have to let things go at some time, but people just can’t forget that easily. Jean McConville has become such an iconic figure, a tragic figure. And there are other such cases, like Bloody Sunday. I think if you can resolve some of those bigger cases, at least it lets the people know they haven’t been forgotten about.”


Historic banquet at Windsor, but in Belfast there’s still a bitter taste
Sean O’Neill
The Times
April 7 2014

In the magnificent surroundings of St George’s Hall in Windsor Castle, the Queen will mark another milestone in Anglo-Irish relations tomorrow night when she hosts a state banquet for President Higgins.

Following the Queen’s successful trip to Ireland in 2011 and her handshake with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness in 2012, the first Irish state visit to Britain is being cast as a further step towards consigning centuries of conflict to the history books. Mr McGuinness, a former IRA leader, will attend the banquet in tie and tails.

Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, yesterday welcomed Mr McGuinness’s decision to go to Windsor, saying that people needed to “move on and not be blocked by the past”.

In Northern Ireland, however, the past is everywhere. The place seems harnessed to its history and that carries the potential to derail the future.

Bloody hatreds and painful memories are painted on gable walls and kerbstones, wrapped in flags and banners and cemented in the sectarian division of schools and neighbourhoods.

In Belfast you can take an open top bus tour around the murals of the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Falls Road, depicting their own versions of struggle and sacrifice, and take pictures of the “peace walls” that divide Protestant from Catholic and scar the city physically and mentally.

The Good Friday agreement, the settlement that ended three decades of violence that claimed more than 3,600 lives, is 16 years old this week. Division, rancour and distrust persist, such that Ulster can seem to have settled for separation rather than reconciliation.

“The conflict may be over on the street but it’s still very much in people’s minds,” one veteran republican said.

That conflict is also being given a new lease of life in a spate of historical investigations which could lead to former paramilitaries standing trial, including some who put away their guns and re-emerged as politicians.

The case of John Downey, the former IRA man acquitted of the Hyde Park bombing when his trial at the Old Bailey collapsed this year, caused outrage.

In Ulster such cold cases are increasingly common. Police are investigating the deaths of 14 demonstrators shot by soldiers of The Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972. Last month detectives arrested a 75-year-old man over the loyalist bombing in 1971 of McGurk’s Bar in north Belfast, in which 15 people died.

Later this week, Ivor Bell, 77, a former IRA member, will appear in court charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Jean McConville, who was abducted, tortured and shot in 1972 because the IRA suspected her of being an informant.

Sources say that taped interviews with former paramilitaries, recorded as part of an oral history project, name the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as the IRA commander who ordered Mrs McConville’s murder. Her family, who have faced vilification over the years, are hoping for justice.

“It’s good to get the can open at last, maybe a few worms will come out,” said Seamus McKendry, the husband of Mrs McConville’s eldest daughter, Helen. “Jean McConville is never coming back from the dead, but we could at least give her memory a bit of peace.”

Mr Adams denies any involvement in the killing.

Advances in forensic science will bring more old cases within reach of resolution. Republicans watch the arrests of former IRA men and, according to one, “are beginning to ask if things are being clawed back, if you can ever have an honourable agreement with the British”. Loyalists look at the “amnesty letters” for the IRA’s on-the-runs and wonder why people in their community were not treated likewise.

Richard Haass, the former US diplomat who led failed talks on the legacy of the conflict, warned that agreement on dealing with the province’s past was now urgent and time alone would not bring healing. He told a US Congress committee last month: “Absent political progress, the passage of time will only create an environment in which social division intensifies, violence increases, investment is scared off, alienation grows and the best and brightest leave to make their futures elsewhere.”

Amid the gloom, Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, said that it was important to remember the achievements of 1998. “There are hundreds of people alive today, thousands who are uninjured because of the Good Friday agreement.”

With hindsight, he says, the issue of the Troubles legacy should not have been devolved to local politicians. “Dublin and Westminster can’t take those devolved powers back now, but they do need to engage. I don’t think we’re going to go back to violence, but we do need to find a way to deal with our horrible past.”

He believes that proposals to end conflict prosecutions are worth further debate. “We need to be honest with victims and honest with ourselves — too often we overestimate what can be achieved with investigations. We can never do justice to the scale of the injustice that happened in this place.”

As the prime mover in orchestrating the historic handshake, Mr Sheridan has another suggestion that holds out the prospect of hope. “Rather than spending £200 million on inquiries and investigations, we should use it to build a memorial hospital — perhaps that is the best we can offer.”