Northern Ireland news

Analysis: Moves to halt historical prosecutions will deepen long-held pain of Ballymurphy families

The Ballymurphy families after hearing Tuesday's inquest inquest verdict. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT took half a century, but finally the unjustifiable killing by the British army of 10 people in Ballymurphy and the unfathomable pain inflicted on their families has been acknowledged.

The latter's long quest to establish the truth about what happened over three days in 1971 has won universal praise and given optimism to those who have perhaps lost hope that past wrongs will one day be recognised as such.

The British government had been conspicuous by its absence in recent days, until it succumbed to pressure and said the prime minister had apologised for the actions of its armed forces against citizens of the state.

An apology is long overdue but as past examples have shown, they'll only say sorry when all other options are exhausted or the passing of time has diluted its worth. Whatever apology there was, its presentation was a mess, generating yet another sideshow controversy on an issue that needs to be handled compassionately.

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It was this day a week ago when reports in the London press, based on anonymous briefings, signalled the British government's intended direction of travel in regards to legacy.

A matter of days before Tuesday's verdict was due, the line was being peddled that whatever the Ballymurphy inquest concluded, none of those responsible for murder would end up in court.

There was an expectation that the Queen's Speech would put more flesh on the bones of what was reported in the Times and Daily Telegraph last week but none materialised, possibly though not unquestionably because the insensitivity of such a move would be seen as callous.

Privately, however, it has been made clear that plans are afoot to introduce a statute of limitations on Troubles-related offences that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

It is accepted by those behind this move that it will apply not only to state actors but to paramilitaries also, an amnesty in all but name.

It will be dressed up in language that suggests current legacy arrangements aren't working and that the resources used in historical investigations could be better deployed.

Collapsed trials and inconclusive probes will be offered as evidence.

Victims and their advocates will be invited to give their views and given the impression that they can influence the outcome.

But the die is already cast. This plan, to borrow a phrase, is oven ready.

We know how victims will respond, as the united chorus of condemnation that accompanied last week's reports demonstrated, yet the British government has said publicly it wants to "look forwards rather than back" – a euphemism for shutting down access to justice.

There may be merits in the argument for what is crudely termed 'drawing a line under the past' but the motivation for introducing the statute of limitations has never been in doubt – it is to protect army veterans from prosecution and to appease MPs who struggle to acknowledge past wrongs perpetrated by the state.

The long-grieving Ballymurphy families have found solace in this week's inquest verdict but it's likely they crave something more.

Instead, they are to be patronised and ultimately insulted by a government that has continually acted in its own selfish interests.

As SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said in the House of Commons earlier this week, if the 10 victims were innocent then somebody is guilty of their killings.

After 50 years of hurt, even more pain is to be heaped on the Ballymurphy families as it becomes clear that once again they will be denied justice – and perhaps a public apology.

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