Britwashing the Troubles

Britwashing the Troubles

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill has now become law.

It will curtail future investigations and trials (even inquests) into Troubles-era killings.

It has faced stern criticism from victims’ groups, human rights campaigners and each of the main parties. (It’s about the only thing they all agree on).

Labour is pledged to reverse it, while the Irish government is mulling taking the British government to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ministers claim their motivation for the legacy bill is to focus on ‘truth recovery’ — granting immunity for some perpetrators if they admit their culpability for crimes. But the overriding motive was to avoid the sight of old soldiers in the dock.

It’s that simple.

Veterans’ affairs minister, Johnny Mercer, was emphatic on that point.

The legislation will protect those ‘who fought for our way of life’ and end ‘vexatious claims’ against former soldiers.

It’s a disgusting explanation for a tawdry motive.

Loyalists and republicans were jailed throughout the Troubles, serving, collectively, thousands of years in prison.

British soldiers were not.

In fact, only four serving soldiers were ever convicted of murder. Each of them served less than a handful of years and each – staggeringly – was allowed to rejoin their regiments.

The Act is also an attempt to ‘Britwash’ the Troubles.

To avoid undermining the narrative that British Forces were merely an impartial referee - rather than an enthusiastic participant throughout the Troubles, both directly and via their proxies in the loyalist paramilitaries.

No-one is fooled.

There are effectively two options for dealing with a place’s traumatic past. The Spanish and South African models.

After the death of General Franco in 1975, the Spanish political class agreed to a ‘Pacto del Olvido.’

This ‘pact of forgetting’ saw an agreement to forego recrimination – however justified a case might be – in the interests of national unity.

In contrast, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought the human rights violations committed under the Apartheid regime out into the open.

It was an inspired process, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and proved yet again that daylight is the best disinfectant for dealing with the crimes of the state.

A new South Africa was bathed in truth.

What the British government has done is to choose the Spanish model – but to do so unilaterally.

There is no consent in Northern Ireland to overlook killings that have still not been adequately investigated, nor their perpetrators brought to book.

It means the victims of the Troubles, so many entirely innocent people, have become collateral damage for the second time.

This government has had 13 years since the publication of Lord Saville’s report into Bloody Sunday to put in place a South African-style tribunal to learn from horrors of the Troubles.

But there is simply no interest along the secretive corridors of Whitehall in doing so.

The reason?

The scale of wrongdoing is simply too great.

So, we are left with this grubby little cover-up instead.

Jeffrey Donaldson (image Sam Boal/Rolling News ie)

Can ministers save Donaldson from his own folly?

Given the ongoing impasse at Stormont, British ministers – under the watchful eye of EU officials - are now taking it upon themselves to implement the measures agreed in the Windsor Framework.

This includes establishing port checkpoints.

It’s a big slap down to the DUP, which maintains its ludicrous boycott of the devolved institutions until the deal is changed to their satisfaction.

They really believed that they had a veto over the process.

I suspect they are fast realising that they don’t.

You will recall the Windsor Framework is the deal that Rishi Sunak struck with the European Union last year to end the Brexit Wars.

So, there is marginally more chance of Ian Paisley being beatified by the Pope than there is of a British PM going back to Brussels to plead with them to reopen negotiations to placate the crackpots in the DUP.

The fix that DUP Leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, finds himself in was caused by his own party’s recklessness and political naiveté.

In backing Brexit so forcefully, his party always wanted a hard border – replete with watchtowers, razor-wire and barking Alsatians.

They were never going to get it.

Frankly, Tory ministers have more respect for the Good Friday Agreement than the DUP has.

Still the government is hovering a rescue helicopter over Donaldson, hoping to winch him to safety.

The problem is that they have overestimated their ability to pull him from the briny depths.

Legal advice suggests there is no prospect of granting a meaningful concession that might win over his hardline sceptics.

Between the framework and the obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, there isn’t much of a sweetener to offer.

Donaldson is dealing with figures in and around his party that are wedded to ‘scrapping’ the deal, or ‘restoring’ Northern Ireland’s place in the UK market.

Not to mention Donaldson’s own ‘seven tests’ which he wants the government to meet.

But there’s not even a remote prospect of addressing these wild, unrealistic expectations - and it’s now the end of the line in even pretending to.

The fault here lies equally between the DUP and the Northern Ireland Office.

Both should have been more realistic about what was achievable in terms of a fix. Both have failed the other.

The government tried to bounce the DUP into accepting the Windsor Framework – going as far as slapping the King’s name on it to shame them into backing it.

In turn, the DUP failed to recognise that Northern Ireland was always going to end up as a special case – with bespoke rules – in order to avoid a hard border.

Donaldson should also have realised that Sunak’s deal with the EU was full and final.

But the unionists are right about one thing.

The Windsor Framework does mean that Northern Ireland will drift further from the UK’s orbit and closer to the EU’s (and by definition the rest of Ireland’s).

This is now inevitable, but the dilemma for unionists to ponder is that it comes courtesy of a) Their terrible misjudgement in backing a hard Brexit and b) Trusting British (Tory) ministers to do right by them.