ANALYSIS: Amnesty - Let's talk about it

Credit: Pacemaker

By Brian Rowan

The issue of Northern Ireland's past was always going to arrive at some amnesty moment and argument.

Indeed if the Eames/Bradley report had been implemented when published in January 2009, by now we may have moved beyond this vexed question.

Almost nine years ago, that Consultative Group concluded "that a general amnesty would not be appropriate in the present situation", but it went on to suggest "that the proposed [Legacy] Commission should make recommendations on how a line might be drawn at the end of its five-year mandate".

That Legacy Commission was never put in place, but the proposed Eames/Bradley structure, including historic investigations, information recovery and reconciliation, have been the recurring themes through all of the negotiations since - including the Haass/O'Sullivan talks and the Stormont House Agreement.

This is the "broad blueprint of what needs to be done" that Professor Louise Mallinder referenced when speaking to View From Stormont earlier this week.

"The longer it takes to address, the increasing pain," she added.

Soon, there is to be another consultation - this time on the Stormont House Agreement of 2014; a structure that includes an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Oral History Archive and an reconciliation element.

This consultation, which was expected to begin within weeks, could end up mired in controversy.

The emerging news over the past 48 hours or so is that it is to include additional elements - a section "alternative approaches to addressing the past" which will invite responses on a proposed statute of limitations.

It means the amnesty question is being asked again.

The recommendation reads back to a report by the Defence Select Committee in April.

It can be summarised as follows; a statute of limitations for former members of the armed forces covering all Troubles-related incidents up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement, that the government should consider extending this to include RUC officers and other security personnel and, that after consultation, the government should consider whether it should apply to all incidents in the conflict period. Alongside this, there should be a truth-recovery mechanism.

Speaking on UTV's View From Stormont on Monday, Professor Kieran McEvoy said, "If there's going to be a statute of limitations, that's an amnesty. It's an amnesty that will apply to all of the actors in the conflict - both state and non-state."

Professor Kieran McEvoy, Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice Credit: Elle Rowan

Almost nine years after the Eames/Bradley report, would such an amnesty be any more appropriate now?

The consultation is going to ask that question - its inclusion described by the Sinn Féin leadership after a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday as "an act of bad faith".

Is it such, or is it a question that cannot be ignored and that needs to be asked?

Are there exceptional circumstances that would allow for an amnesty in the context of a transition from conflict to peace?

How would we describe the early release of prisoners, the fact that there was no forensic testing of weapons in the decommissioning process, that information leading to the discovery of the remains of the disappeared was protected, that so-called "comfort letters" were issued to suspects on-the-run?

Were these amnesties in all but name - controversial, but necessary parts of a peace process?

Loyalists, including Winston Irvine, have argued that a legacy process cannot have both investigations and information-retrieval. That the threat of prosecution and the possibility of jail would restrict cooperation with any truth-recovery mechanism.

On Monday, in a UTV interview with Deputy Political Editor Tracey Magee, Gerry Adams argued that the IRA had gone - meaning there would not be a corporate or organisational involvement with any legacy process, that it would be a matter of individual choice. (The PSNI believes that part of the IRA structure including its leadership remains in place.)

And, in relation to intelligence, policing and the military, national security considerations will mean there will be cases in which information will not be disclosed to families.

There is another big question: Can you have a peace process that releases prisoners and a past process that sends people to jail?

This consultation, for all the controversy around the inclusion of a statute of limitations, may begin to answer some of these big questions.

It is time to stop lying about the truth - and to be honest about what a legacy process will deliver and not deliver.

This amnesty question is an inevitable part of any such discussion.