Northern Ireland

Analysis: While the British government's motivation is undoubtedly questionable, the legacy process requires some new thinking

The Bloody Sunday relatives' quest for justice highlights the flaws in the current legacy process. Picture by BBC
The Bloody Sunday relatives' quest for justice highlights the flaws in the current legacy process. Picture by BBC

NO issue generates a disproportionate amount of heat relative to light quite like the legacy of the Troubles. The quest for justice for those thousands of people affected is something that is universally supported yet equally there is a desire to move on and ‘draw a line under the past’. Nowhere is the contradiction between what’s said publicly and privately more pronounced.

Many politicians and victims’ advocates will freely concede off-record that legacy is an issue that will never be satisfactorily resolved and that it is futile to seek not only legal redress but something approaching truth or accountability for what happened in cases that stretch back decades. Despite acknowledging shortcomings with the conception and implementation of every initiative devised since the Good Friday Agreement, and the subsequent deals since that have sought to address the past, people who really should know better continue to pay lip service to unattainable ideals.

It’s a painful reality for victims and survivors but what the British government is proposing – a legally unprecedented, de facto amnesty for the perpetrators of killings during the Troubles – is the boldest and most decisive policy for dealing with the past for more than quarter of a century. Equally significant is the corresponding plan to end Troubles inquests and hundreds of civil actions.

Yet predictably the proposals have been met with widespread opposition, as much for the motivation and justification of the planned statute of limitations, as its substance. This government and its MPs have consistently complained about the ‘witch hunts’ and ‘vexatious prosecutions’ of those British army personnel responsible for killing innocent civilians, and this legislation is the outworking of this skewed campaign. The House of Commons speaker yesterday censured the government for again briefing journalists from sympathetic London-based newspapers about its plans, while effectively marginalising the majority of those who’ll be affected.

These are the representatives of the same government that covered-up, frustrated and undermined successive attempts to get justice for hundreds of families. It is extremely far-fetched to suggest they have the interests of victims and survivors at heart.

But if it’s possible to set aside the characteristic callousness and lack of sensitivity displayed in unilaterally bringing forward these proposals, they can perhaps be viewed more positively, potentially as a watershed and an unburdening of years of recrimination and unfulfilled grievance. When considered alongside the efforts of the Bloody Sunday families and the relatives of Joe McCann to secure justice, it’s difficult to disagree with Brandon Lewis’s assertion that the “current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone”. The families who can claim to have secured justice on their relatives' behalf in recent years can be counted on one hand.

In tandem with the proposal to establish a new information recovery body, alongside an oral history project and some rather cumbersome sounding ‘memorialisation’, there are, on paper at least, some promising aspects to what is being devised, though as always the proof is will be in the pudding.

To date, the legacy process has been haphazard and piecemeal, rarely delivering a conclusive outcome. If at the very least, the British government’s unpopular and as yet legally untested blanket amnesty triggers some serious reflection and an broader appraisal of what victims and survivors want from the process, rather than politicians, then it may have some value.

Further away time-wise from the conflict than its 25-year duration, it’s time to start managing people’s expectations and move beyond the usual posturing and platitudes.