Faith Matters

Amnesty plan risks more harm than healing

The British government's widely criticised proposals to end prosecutions relating to the Troubles are a blunt move lacking in process and substance, says David Smyth, and highlight the pressing need for a mainstreaming of the Christian ministry of peacemaking

The British government's Troubles amnesty proposals have been widely criticised, with a campaign against the plan backed by all major political parties, north and south. Victims' group representatives - including Raymond McCord, Julie Hambleton, Michael Gallagher, Billy McManus, Cathy McIlvenny, Eugene Reavey and John Teggart - are bringing their protest to London. Picture by Hugh Russell.

THE British government's plan to introduce a statute of limitations to end all prosecutions related to the Troubles before 1998 is deeply concerning, falling short in both substance and process.

Substance

The five political parties which make up the Northern Ireland Executive, as well as many victims and survivors of the Troubles, have condemned this approach, which would also end current and future civil cases and inquests.

Opposition comes from right across the political spectrum and from groups representing victims of both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, veterans and those killed by state forces.

The shared concern is that such a blunt move fails to address the specific and systematic complexities and injustices of the Troubles.

The justice system, and confidence in it, works on the basis of just law, specific facts and evidence, and serving the public interest.

There is a danger that rather than 'drawing a line under the Troubles', as Boris Johnson perhaps genuinely or naively hopes this will do, it will only serve to further entrench the pains and injustices of the past.

Process

The overwhelming feeling is that is it wrong - legally, politically, morally - for the British government, a signatory of the Good Friday Agreement and Stormont House Agreement, to attempt to act in this way.

Proposals to address some of the most urgent legacy impacts of the Troubles were agreed by executive parties and the British and Irish governments as part of the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014. While not all victims and survivors will have agreed with those proposals, representative groups were widely included and consulted at that time.

There is no doubt that delays in implementation, in some part due to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the pandemic, and in some part due to posturing and politicking, have added to the trauma, frustration and increasing urgency of the present situation.

The government's latest plan, however, does not appear to be an attempt to expedite matters for victims and survivors. It seeks to unilaterally override both the Stormont House Agreement and devolution.

As we in Evangelical Alliance - along with others - warned at the time when legislation on abortion was introduced, a worrying precedent has been set and pattern is now emerging around how the British government deals with politically sensitive matters in Northern Ireland.

Justice and truth

We need an honest public conversation about justice, where realistic expectations and hopes can be discussed.

What is the relationship between truth and justice? How far can justice be achieved without truth? What is the role of the state in this and how can it be held to account appropriately alongside other groups in the conflict?

What does justice look like if someone is convicted of killing one person, five people or 15 people post-Good Friday Agreement? How retributive is this justice? How restorative?

From an evidential point of view, with every passing year and the loss of witnesses and memories, the likelihood of successful prosecutions diminishes, and not just for Troubles-related crimes.

Civil suits and pubic inquiries are expensive and do not lend themselves to most cases of death and injury caused during the Troubles. Even when 'successful', as in the case of the Ballymurphy families, apologies, truth and restitution are difficult to navigate.

That said, it is another thing entirely to prohibit the very consideration of the pursuit of justice through the criminal or civil courts even where there is a slim chance of success.

In my personal view, this move by the British government seems to risk more harm than healing. It is a reminder of how closely the past continues to stalk our society as a present reality both when it comes to public policy and personal experience.

While it is often impossible to 'draw a line under' the past, it is important to recognise a good and genuine desire, shared by many people living in Northern Ireland, to move beyond the Troubles as our defining story.

These are difficult and weighty things and go far beyond the role of government highlighting the pressing need for a mainstreaming of the Christian ministry of peacemaking in Northern Ireland.

Followers of Jesus in South Africa, Rwanda, Serbia and many other places have tried to walk these difficult spaces between our present earthly limitations around justice and the hope of redemption in the new heavens and the new earth.

I remember hearing an African pastor talk about how the cross of Jesus transforms and transcends these moments in a very real way.

In any conflict, 'victims' and 'perpetrators' are bound together in blood. Many victims will never receive justice in this life or hear the word 'sorry'. Many perpetrators will never receive a pardon in this life or hear the word 'forgiveness'.

In the cross, however, justice and mercy meet. The victim finds that Jesus' blood promises justice for the sins committed against them. The perpetrator finds that Jesus' blood offers redemption for the sins they have committed against God and others.

This is not an amnesty - victim and perpetrator are still bound by blood, but it is the blood of Christ which offers the promise of new identities and relationships in this life and the next.

It is this spiritual yet tangible change where I can see the most pressing role for the church in the days and years ahead - this connection of hope for the future and healing in the present.

The ability to enlarge the horizons of what is humanly possible in the space where politics and law can only ever take us so far towards reconciliation.

Truth, justice, forgiveness, redemption - this is the language of the gospel. Good news proclaimed and demonstrated for our people in this place. Blessed are the feet of those who bring this good news; now may we go as those commissioned, treading carefully with wisdom and grace.

David Smyth is head of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland.

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