Two former British soldiers, aged in their 60s, are to be prosecuted for the murder of a non-state militant in Belfast in 1972. This follows similar attempts to prosecute former militants and soldiers over ‘historical’ acts of violence in Northern Ireland’s troubles. A significant number of former soldiers and non-state militants have been arrested and questioned over the past four years about decades old offences. In 2013, a 62 year old member of the IRA was charged with a bombing in London that killed four British soldiers. Indeed, in 2014 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with a murder 42 years previously. No charges were brought.
All of these arrests led to howls of protests from supporters who point out the righteousness of the individuals they support. The Sun newspaper called the arrests of the soldiers a ‘bloody outrage’ and ‘witch hunt’ (and, of course, celebrated the arrest of Gerry Adams). The Daily Mail called the soldiers ‘heroes’ and their victim a ‘terrorist’ who would not hesitate to use violence. The reactions are predictable and as though from auto-bot script-writing software. In part the reactions are human and affective – from relatives of victims and those who feel justifiable moral outrage. But much of the reaction is simply politics and is fuelled by entrenched victims groups who are a little too comfortable in their roles.
Northern Ireland can continue along this path of prosecuting pensioners for things they did in their youth until the last of them dies out. Or, it could try reconciliation. The latter path is difficult and would lead many people to feel uncomfortable but the drip-drip prosecutions and constant recrimination is symptomatic of a society that is not at ease with itself and thus maintains the potential for further violence. Despite a major peace accord (the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) there has never been reconciliation: nation-wide, local, legislative, or symbolic. The three major violent actors (the British State, pro-united Ireland militants, and pro-United Kingdom militants – and the communities that support them) have never faced up to their responsibilities on the past – and more importantly – on the present and future.
The powersharing Assembly in Northern Ireland is dominated by two ethno-nationalist parties (the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein) who have little interest in reconciliation. It would – after all – put them out of business. They rely on electoral bases that can be mobilised around familiar tropes of victimhood, sectarianism and long-term zero-sum goals. Rare initiatives on reconciliation are kicked into the long grass. The European Union has spent an unfeasible amount of money – almost £2bn in the tiny space of Northern Ireland – on ‘peace and reconciliation’. That money was spent to buy off militants and communities but it was not spent on reconciliation. It was also raided by the British and Irish governments for general budgetary expenses. The British State – which ran death squads and is guilty of mass human rights abuses – is protected by its security establishment which launches howls of protests if anyone mentions its shameful past. Think Ronaldo diving to the ground and clutching his face when a defender looks at him. Lt Col Very-Safe-in-Surrey is rolled out by the newspapers to thunder about what a disgrace it is that honest and decent squaddies (the working classes that the Lt Col cannot abide in his everyday life) are being prosecuted while ‘terrorists’ roam free.
So where can Northern Ireland go from here? There are reports that privately the two main political parties would like to try to put the past them, but the victims groups that they have (in part) created and nurtured are an obstacle to that. The monsters they have created have a life of their own and lazy reporters from Northern Ireland’s newspapers simply hit speed dial to get an instant quote. There is a case for the political parties (and responsible elements of the media) to distance themselves from the victims groups. This is not to under-estimate the real pain and hurt that the families of victims of violence have experienced. But most mourning – in my experience – is conducted among families and friendship circles. Mourning happens around the kitchen table, in the quiet moment when a relative misses the company of a loved one. Mourning and coming to terms with the past does not – again in my experience – come through spokespersons for victims groups, press releases and giving public money to victims groups. It is time – almost a quarter of a century after the militant ceasefires – to put the victims groups to bed.
It is also time for the two main political parties (they run an absolute duopoly thanks to the rules of the powersharing Assembly) to face up to their responsibilities and draw a line under the past. This would involve a pact (this is politics after all) in which representatives of the three violent actors (the British State, the pro-united Ireland militants, and the pro-United Kingdom militants) would release comprehensive statements dealing with their past actions. So the British State must confess to its death squads, sponsorship of loyalist militants, and massive human rights abuses. The Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association and various other loyalists must acknowledge – in detailed ways – the pain and hurt they have caused through murder, bombing, intimidation and a host of other acts of violence. Otherwise Northern Ireland can sleepwalk into the next few decades by prosecuting pensioners.
It is worth noting that most militants (that is: soldiers, policemen, state militia, and members of non-state militant groups) were in their late teens and twenties when they engaged in violence. They were in large organisations run by older men who gave them orders. Frankly, many were immature and may not hold the views now that they did decades ago. Should we really prosecute adults for what they did as teenagers when they were members of coercive organisations?