Leading article

Consistency needed in complex legacy debate

THE revelation that a man in his eighties was questioned this week about republican activities in the border area in 1959 deserves to be regarded as a significant development in the complex and sensitive debate on legacy issues.

A range of prominent Conservative figures have regularly suggested that the passage of time means it is impossible for British soldiers to receive a fair trial in connection with alleged offences from the 1970s. If they are to take a consistent position, they must surely agree that pursuing Michael Ryan over events from fully six decades ago is at least equally unsustainable.

Mr Ryan has never made any secret of his role in the IRA’s disastrous ‘border campaign’ which stretched from 1956 to 1962, and last year he published a book which set out his detailed involvement in what he described as a failed cause. Some unionist politicians called for his arrest at that stage and two days ago he was visited at his Dundalk home by Garda detectives who were believed to be acting on a complaint passed on by the PSNI.

Mr Ryan, who has been in poor health, was not arrested, as we report, but in the present climate it is hard to predict exactly where the highly unusual case is going.

This week has also seen a confusing intervention from the new UK defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt. She said she wants provide British military personnel who served not only in places like Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Northern Ireland with legislative protection against prosecutions which go back more than 10 years.

Quite how her initiative will affect civilians, whether from a republican or loyalist background, who face serious allegations dating prior to 2009, never mind 1959, remains entirely uncertain and there have already been predictions that the whole project – which sounds suspiciously like an amnesty under another name – could collapse in the face of a legal challenge.

Ms Mordaunt caused further puzzlement by saying that the authorities had failed to make progress on the legacy question “because we have been held up waiting for other things to happen. It is not going to get resolved overnight”.

The process of “waiting for other things to happen” would appear to have been under way since the Good Friday Agreement 21 years ago, and Ms Mordaunt’s statement was hardly a vote of confidence in the measures emerging from the 2014 Stormont House negotiations.

Her comments will inevitably be linked to the appalling claim last March from Secretary of State Karen Bradley that killings at the hands of the British security forces were “not crimes”, which was followed by a cringeworthy apology, and the previous blatant misrepresentations over historical investigations on the part of Prime Minister Theresa May, which had to be corrected by the PSNI.

It is hugely difficult to have confidence in the ability of the British government to find viable legacy solutions, given this record, but the overwhelming priority must be to agree a strategy which can be accepted by all sections of society and is not simply aimed at protecting former members of the British army.

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