The early release scheme was perhaps the most emotive and distasteful part of the Agreement. Like many others, I swallowed hard and voted ‘Yes’ in order to allow political progress.
While the Agreement remains the best means to ensure the primacy of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the dangerous perception of a moral vacuum in its implementation has been allowed to develop.
And now, through the peace package, the Governments are proposing that prosecutions will not be pursued against paramilitaries ‘On the Run’. This amounts to a amnesty for all of those suspected of terrorist offences prior to the Agreement. Those guilty of serious crimes prior to the Agreement will not be prosecuted for their deeds – an interpretation the Governments have singularly failed to refute.
Alliance has serious reservations about this amnesty. Such a provision was not contained in the Agreement. It is a step too far, morally inappropriate and undeserved by those who would benefit.
Under the current early release scheme, beneficiaries have at least been convicted; there has been a clear statement that their activities were criminal and illegitimate. With the ‘ceasefires’, there was an acceptance that they could be safely released into society, with minimal risk.
Such prisoners are released on licence. If they become involved in terrorist activities, they can be returned to prison, although the Secretary of State has used this power only sparingly.
This amnesty is disingenuously billed as a natural development of the early release scheme. It is not.
Firstly, this proposal will deny victims any recognition that those who inflicted suffering upon them were wrong. In the eyes of their victims, these paramilitaries will have cheated justice twice – no sentence and no conviction. Secondly, it has always and rightly been British Government policy to deny that terrorists were fighting a war. Their actions were regarded as criminal, albeit with political motivations. Not to pursue prosecutions would be tantamount to accepting that their actions were legitimate. There would be no moral distinction between the actions of the security forces in upholding the rule of law, and the terrorism conducted by both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries.
In some post-conflict situations – such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone – the prosecution of war criminals has been regarded by the international community, including the British and Irish Governments, as integral to building peace, justice and reconciliation. Yet, the same Governments now say that in order to achieve the same in Northern Ireland, they are not only prepared to release prisoners early, but also to give up on pursuing prosecutions.
In South Africa, the parties opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those wishing to benefit from an amnesty had to fully disclose their activities before the Commission. While this approach did not provide the necessary sense of justice for many victims, there was at least a public acknowledgment of crimes. Furthermore, amnesties were not automatic, and the authorities reserved the right to prosecute.
Alliance accepts that there is a need to draw a line under our troubled past and create a new beginning. But this must not be at the expense of justice, the human rights of victims or the integrity of the rule of law.
That is why Alliance believes it is still necessary to pursue those ‘on the run’ and seek convictions, even if those convicted are in practice also immediately released. This would amount to suspended sentences, but those convicted would then be subject to licence conditions under the Northern Ireland Sentences Act (1998), and could be returned to prison if those conditions are breached.
This ill-conceived amnesty is a concession that steps well outside the terms of the Agreement in an attempt to get the Republican Movement to deliver on its commitment to decommissioning made in that same Agreement.
In the same package, the Governments provide for a long list of inquiries into allegations against members of the RUC and Garda. How can they accept that it is necessary to investigate the activities of the security forces to establish a sense of justice but turn a blind eye to the activities of paramilitaries? This glaring contradiction must be dealt with.
Finally, there is absolutely no provision in the package for those forcibly ‘exiled’ from Northern Ireland. Where is the push to get the paramilitaries to make a declaration that such people can return home in safety? It seems an obvious connection to make, yet few have made it. To ignore this issue is to deny these forgotten victims the basic human right of being able to live free from the threat of violence in Northern Ireland.
With the effective side-lining of the peace package by a number of pro-Agreement parties, the opportunity is now there for the Governments to reconsider this dangerous and contradictory proposal.