The Republic of Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is reportedly keen to challenge the UK’s Northern Ireland Legacy Bill at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The legislation, which received royal assent on Monday, is intended to limit prosecutions of Troubles crimes, stop expensive judicial inquests and establish an “Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery”.
The bill certainly has its critics, as well as its problems. It is opposed by all Northern Ireland’s main political parties, including the DUP. That’s most likely because it reflects the fact that justice will not now be delivered for most victims of terrorism in the province. This unpleasant truth was always a central feature of the “peace process”, but, until now, it was never officially acknowledged.
The Taoiseach is not trying to grapple with these moral complexities or provide a fair deal for most innocent victims, whose loved ones were killed by republican terrorists. Instead, his posturing demonstrates the continued hypocrisy of the Irish separatist state in its approach to Northern Ireland’s past, as well as its incurable compulsion to meddle in the politics of the mother country.
Ministers in Dublin have repeatedly chided the UK for its perceived failure to deal with the “legacy” of the Troubles. Not only have they refused to investigate their own state’s role in providing support and sanctuary to the IRA, but they’ve been open about implementing a de facto amnesty for the main perpetrators of violence.
The government at Westminster has also struggled for years to solve the problem of Troubles’ investigations, which are being used increasingly to distort recent history and blame the state for violence in Northern Ireland.
The IRA was persuaded to step away from out and out terrorism, and Sinn Fein was coaxed into the democratic institutions at Stormont, by the granting of the Provos prisoner releases, pardons and “comfort letters” for “On the Runs” suspected of crimes. Almost everyone in Ulster understood very well that it was considered politically inexpedient (and increasingly impractical as time progressed) to bring prosecutions against republican terrorists.
The result was that Troubles investigations became focussed, overwhelmingly, on a small number of killings that were the responsibility of the security forces. Republicans have exploited this unbalanced judicial process, nurturing an industry of “human rights” lawyers, “transitional justice” grifters and campaign groups. This cohort remorselessly portrays Britain, rather than the IRA, as the main aggressor during the Troubles.
This may be a statistically and historically absurd account, but there is evidence that it has gained credibility. This is especially true amongst younger nationalists, who do not remember the period but have followed the relentless news cycle of inquiries and investigations into the state.
Whilst the King was signing off the legacy bill at the start of the week, yet another inquest opened in Belfast. This time, a judge has been asked to determine whether the SAS was justified in using lethal force, when it killed four IRA men who had attacked Coalisland police station in 1992. The terrorist gang was driving a stolen lorry, equipped with a Soviet anti-aircraft heavy machine-gun that was welded on to the tailgate, when soldiers opened fire.
During the Troubles, a majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland were clear enough about their opposition to the IRA. Thanks to the efforts of republicans to sanitise their violence, alongside mixed messages from constitutional nationalist parties and the horror of that time fading from memory, up to seven in ten now believe there was “no alternative” to separatist terrorism.
The furore was brief because it confirmed what everyone knew already
Our government has contributed to this change in attitudes, by failing to challenge Sinn Fein and its distortions properly.
The irony is that, in a domestic context, senior Irish politicians often speak about the Provos with more candour and contempt than British ministers, or even Ulster unionists, would dare to replicate. Varadkar may be known in the UK for his preening and Brit-bashing, but in the Republic’s parliament, with exquisite sarcasm, he described the mysterious English recluse who donated £3 million to Sinn Fein as “a vagabond who lived in a caravan”.
During another exchange, he told the Sinn Fein deputy Pearse Doherty, “When it comes to Sinn Fein and the rule of law and public order and endemic violence, it does not take very long for your balaclava to slip.” Quite so, Mr Taoiseach. Meanwhile, in Belfast, successive secretaries of state were failing to issue even the mildest criticism of republicans.
Varadkar and his predecessor, Micheal Martin, are justifiably scathing when it comes to the Shinners’ pernicious influence in the south, but they’ve always been happy to lecture unionists about placating them in Northern Ireland. They’ve also repeatedly supported a legacy process that implicates the UK’s security forces and sanitises the role of republican terrorists.
In 2014, the Republic’s former justice minister Michael McDowell caused a minor controversy when he observed that there was a long-standing consensus in Dublin that paramilitary crime would no longer be investigated. “In fact,” he said, “what happened in the Republic was that there was just a decision by the guards to use their resources to prevent current crime and current offences and not to go back over the IRA’s campaign of violence.” The furore was brief because it confirmed what everyone knew already.
That decision was replicated, in reality, in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The reasons were practical, because investigating the past is difficult; and political, because the peace process relied on appeasing Sinn Fein.
The Dublin government is as aware as ministers in Westminster of the way that “legacy” has been skewed. Perpetrators of terror are coddled and helped to distort history, whilst those who tried to stop them are pursued and demonised. Shame on Varadkar and his like for not pointing this out. Instead they are trying to ride the currents of anti-British resentment that lie just below the surface of modern Irish society. They are cowards, but, most of all, they are hypocrites.
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