Friday, December 16, 2005

On the run?

Here in Northern Ireland we have had to make many compromises "for peace". This is absolutely necessary. If there is a conflict there are not many choices: one side completely defeats the other, or enough people reach an agreement they can live with, or the protagonists die out or become irrelevant - and the struggle here showed no signs of dying out.

The latest compromise has been over convicted terrorists who are "on the run", and those who would face prosecution on their return. It seems that the price of the IRA's "going away" is for this threat to be lifted, and for the "bhoys" to come home. The plot unravelled slightly when it seemed that those the IRA had exiled under threat of death were left in an uncertain limbo. It thickened again when members of the security forces who might also face prosecution were included in the arrangements.

But what arrangements? What to do with the guilty parties? An amnesty would be unacceptable to the victims. A trial and prison term (the default option) was unacceptable to the terrorists.

The unfortunate proposal was that the criminals would not have to face a court at all. There would be no charges - just a pat on the head from a secret tribunal.

This is simply wrong - and today the Human Rights Commission pointed this out! [BBC News] Those who are guilty must be charged, and if they are to escape punishment, they should at least receive a conviction and the censure of a court of law.

This would still be a denial of justice - though arguably a necessary compromise in this compromised peace process. But at least it would be slightly less of an insult to those who are left behind to deal with the pain, injury, bereavement and loss. We may remit the punishment, but we must acknowledge the guilt and the hurt before we can expect to move on.


liberranter said...

I'm assuming from reading your post that the center of controversy here is that it is only "convicted IRA terrorists" who are facing the possibility of some sort of amnesty. It's easy to see where this could lead to charges of bias from both sides; Unionists see it as giving the IRA a free pass for past transgressions, while Republicans would wonder why it is only the possibility of amnesty for the IRA causing controversy, whereas the same consideration has not been given to members of the UDA or other Unionist elements who have perpetrated similar crimes in the past and who may have been shielded from justice. In other words, the government in this case is clearly damned if it does and equally damned if it doesn't.

The only equitable solution would be to judge individual cases on their legal merits. What crime(s) is each of the individuals in question accused of? Are the charges clearly criminal in nature (crimes against person and property such as kidnapping, murder, extortion, destruction of real property, etc.)? If so, then a public criminal trial before a jury of one's peers is fully warranted (as opposed to the process that the Crown has traditionally exercised against suspected terrorists).

This option certainly presents serious stumbling blocks too lengthy to cite here (venue being not the least of them; can either an IRA or UDA member receive a fair and impartial trial in Ulster, Britain, or the Irish Republic?), but it would seem that until sectarian political issues can be separated from administration of the law, there isn't much hope of a durable peace.

Paul said...

I have not read the actual legislation, but I'd be very surprised if fugitives from all terrorist organisations on a recognised ceasefire were not treated in the same way - whether loyalist or republican. It is still, essentially, a free pass for the IRA and their like.

Sinn Fein are complaining that similar concessions are being extended to state forces, which it seems they hold to a higher standard, while vilifying them at every opportunity.

I don't think we've ever limited immunity by considering whether the crimes were appropriate acts for an "armed struggle" - that would open a can of worms. By denying legitamacy to some terrorist acts, we would confer legitimacy on other acts, including murder, and on the criminal organisations which carried them out. Attractive though the idea seems, it could be worse than the present method.

I belive the main problem with the current proposals is that there is no judicial process. The terrorists should be answerable to the law - even if they subsequently go free, for the greater good of the peace process. A jury is not necessary for most of these cases - for escaped prisoners on the run there are no questions of fact in dispute.

Ideally jury trial should be reintroduced for terrorist crimes - the threat to the safety of jury members is presumably less that it was. However the unwillingness to turn in the murderers of Robert Macartney, even though the attack took place in a crowded pub, suggests that the IRA can still intimidate. It may be to soon.

But even NI's no-jury courts, and the criminal courts in English, Scottish and Irish courts, give (and are seen to give) fair and impartial trials. The coourts are independant, and trials here are as fair an anywhere.