This March the Government intends to bring forward legislation to provide for an amnesty for paramilitaries said to be ‘on the run’ from the law. This ill-conceived measure emerged as part of a side-deal between the Prime Minister and Sinn Fein at the Weston Park talks last summer.
As things stand, the Government does not intend to pursue prosecutions for politically-motivated offences committed before the Agreement by people linked to paramilitary organisations. While Sinn Fein have submitted a list of about 60 people whom they want to benefit from the scheme, the legal precedent would ensure no trials could occur for a wide range of atrocities from Enniskillen to LaMon House, from Teebane to Lurgan. In other words, it will be a general amnesty.
Alliance can accept that there is an issue of paramilitary fugitives to be addressed, and can share in the natural desire to draw a line under the past. But this should not be at the expense of the stability of the peace process, the feelings of victims, and the implications for human rights and the rule of law.
The current proposals risk opening up a Pandora’s box. Yet, it is not too late for the Government to refine their proposals to take into account the following difficulties.
The forgotten issue of the peace process is that of paramilitary ‘exiles’. These are people who have been expelled from their homes and have had to move away, usually outside Northern Ireland.
According to NIACRO figures over 1,000 people were relocated to other parts of Northern Ireland, and over 400 people were resettled outside Northern Ireland between 1995 and 2000. The trend since the 1994 ceasefires, if anything, is growing. This phenomenon is a feature of both Republican and Loyalist communities.
Some victims may have been suspected of crimes or other anti-social behaviour. But there is never any justification for denying people their human rights and the due process of law.
In other cases, the intimidation is sectarian or the persons in question have somehow crossed the paramilitary godfathers, such as Joseph McCloskey from Derry.
It is notable that Sinn Fein continue to justify these ‘expulsions’, and the organisations have no intention of lifting the threats. The party quickest to claim the human rights of their own associates continues to justify the human rights abuses of others. The rote recital that the police are unacceptable rings even hollower after the post-Agreement reforms.
It would be an act of breathtaking hypocrisy if the self-same paramilitary organisations that ‘exiled’ or otherwise made threats against so many citizens were able to slip fugitives back into Northern Ireland.
Empty rhetoric from the sidelines, appealing to the good nature of the paramilitaries, is not going to resolve this issue – leverage is needed. The Government must first seek guarantees that these people can return to their homes before proceeding with any amnesty.
The amnesty itself is going to deny any sense of justice and cause much hurt to a great many people. While in practice, few suspects may ever face a court, many victims still cling to the hope justice would be done. One slight irony is that some of those ‘on the run’ are not even on the PSNI’s ‘wanted’ list, begging the question ‘Why are they hiding?’
Furthermore, it has been a longstanding tenet of Government policy that the actions of paramilitaries were crimes, even if they were politically-motivated. To forgo prosecutions risks implying that a legitimate war was fought.
Similarly, it would just as wrong to put members of the security forces on a par with members of terrorist organisations. But how then can it be justified to wipe the slate clean for paramilitaries and at the same time intensify the pursuit of members of the security forces through a number of inquiries?
Amnesties are prominent neither in British history or in international practice. It is notable that even in South Africa, the amnesty offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was limited. Those wishing to avail of an amnesty had to apply individually, fully disclose their deeds, show remorse and demonstrate a political motivation. The authorities retained the right to pursue prosecutions. In this example, over 96 percent of applications were dismissed on administrative grounds, and of the 186 applications that were considered, an amnesty was withheld in around a third of cases.
If the Government are intent on proceeding with this measure, one way forward would be to require anyone who wishes to avail of an amnesty to appear before a court, and either admit to their offences or contest the charges against them. If there is insufficient evidence against a person, then they have nothing to fear. Those pleading or found guilty could then be released on licence.
This approach would at least be consistent with the contentious early-release scheme of the Agreement and the public would have the same protection in the event of re-offence. Victims would feel some sense of justice in that offences would be publicly acknowledged and perhaps some degree of remorse may be expressed.