Only by forgiving – and forgetting – can Ireland emerge from its past | Simon jenkins
If I had lost a family member on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972, I’m sure I would like someone to be brought to justice. I also wouldn’t care when. Indeed, although ardent for forgiveness and rehabilitation, in such a case I am sure I would like a punishment. I am human, and revenge is a human emotion – even if I would call it “justice”. But such justice must be subject to two limitations. One is that he must be blind and impartial; the other is that justice should, to some extent, be proportionate in time. The costs are relevant. Life must continue.
The government’s decision this week to declare an amnesty in Northern Ireland and to end the charges against the soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday was prompted by such limitations. Guilt may be obvious to some, but half a century has passed. Wrongful killings are not uncommon in times of war, especially in so-called “wars between peoples”; witness the legal proceedings against British troops in Iraq. Here the defendants are old men and convictions in such cases are difficult to obtain.
Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis has proposed a general amnesty for crimes committed during the unrest before the 1998 ceasefire. He suggests a “truth and reconciliation commission” based on the model used in South Africa. South and elsewhere. The allegations will be investigated – there are some 1,200 deaths under investigation by Northern Ireland Police – and the information will be gathered and digested, but without fear of legal retaliation. A border museum and a memorial are even offered.
It is not surprising that Lewis’ proposal did not satisfy any of the parties involved in the province – except, we suppose, the British military. Ireland does not grant an amnesty. The issue was so sensitive that it was left out of the Good Friday deal in 1997. Instead, there was a confusing array of pardons and prison releases, which prompted the Democratic Unionist Party to oppose to the agreement.
This left the field open to eternal litigation as victims on both sides played the turmoil in court. In the last decade alone, some 1,000 cases have consumed most of the £ 500million in legal aid, although, according to Lewis, “hardly ever provides families with the answers or the results they want. are looking for “.
A courtroom is a better place to get victim satisfaction than an alleyway in Belfast, although the slowness with which the court process has unfolded is scandalous. Even so, Lewis’s proposition may make sense. A truth commission must be better than an eternal stumble in a costly judicial jungle. Diverting current litigation costs into a relief fund would certainly be a better use of public money. Victims are preferable beneficiaries to lawyers.
Northern Ireland’s rival communities remain defined by their past. Since the Protestant “plantations” of the 16th and 17th centuries not a generation has escaped some form of communal conflict, often with extreme atrocities unknown on the British side of the Irish Sea. The entire country is a memorial to an evil act of the former English monarchs, the attempt to eradicate Irish Catholicism through colonization. The modern legacy of this attempt is unequivocally England’s fault.
The obligation of its current governors – and they are still British – is to do everything to move forward. Boris Johnson’s commitment to the DUnP over the Brexit protocol in Northern Ireland may be rooted in a lie. But the lie – that there was no need for a barrier in the Irish Sea – perhaps just pushed the country one step closer to a compromise with the south, first on trade. but inevitably on other areas of sovereignty.
Militant trade unionists will always oppose any amnesty for the IRA. Long-standing hostility is their raison d’être – as is the IRA’s. But activism is clearly losing electoral support. Polls show that public opinion is now neck and neck on reunification movements, with opposition weakening even among Protestants, while Sinn Fein continues to clean up its image and strengthen in the south.
What the country desperately needs is to put the conflicts of the past behind it. He must display that underestimated quality in the history of any nation: the ability to forget. The obstacle to oblivion in Northern Ireland is carved across the hills and fields of its southern border, a permanent memorial to the municipal division. It is reproduced in the “Walls of Peace” of the city of Belfast. That anywhere in 21st century Europe feels the need for such barriers between its citizens is a stain on British Isles politics.
These barriers, physical and metaphorical, are those that truth and reconciliation must face. But the best news from Northern Ireland would be that the “party of oblivion” wins, that it sees virtue in a future united Ireland. If so, it is to be hoped that Lewis’s commissions, memorials and museums will be doomed not to memory but to oblivion.