I have no doubt that Peter Robinson does as he claims have real sympathy for the victims of what he calls terrorism, and that he’s horrified on their behalf at the collapse of the case of John Downey at the Old Bailey for the Hyde Park bombings in 1982. I ‘m equally sure the UUP’s Tom Elliott is sincere in his denunciation of the letters to some 200 on-the-runs which assure them they will not be prosecuted, just as I’m sure Jim Allister is sincere when he denounces the whole affair as more of “the rotten skulduggery behind the peace process”.
I am also sure that when a politician opens his mouth, he does so with one eye on the next election. The three sincere men I’ve listed above probably do care about the families of the Hyde Park victims (they’ve met with them, you say, Virginia? I didn’t know that), but they know where votes come from in this tortured green corner: they come from bashing the opposition over the head with a saucepan or something heavier. In this case, the heads that are exposed for a bashing are those of republicans and Sinn Féin, and you need have no worries about the elbow grease Peter and Tom and Jim and others will put into that swing.
Their joint cry is that the relatives will not have justice – that is, John Downey nor no-one else will serve a period in prison that matches the events of Hyde Park so long ago. They’re right – they won’t. And even had the court found Downey guilty, he’d still have served just two years in prison, which no doubt in the eyes of the relatives would not have been justice.
But it can’t be said too often: that’s what we all signed up to in the Good Friday Agreement. Of course as a loved one this is bitter medicine – but it’s the best medicine that could be produced to bring an end, by and large, to our Troubles. Moving pictures of humans or dead horses or outraged politicians don’t change that. So unionist politicians didn’t know the question of on-the-runs had been resolved in this way. Was that way any harder to stomach than the release of convicted prisoners such as Pat Magee, the Brighton bomber?
What unionist politicians should feel bitter about – and learn from – is that Britain doesn’t care. It doesn’t care what they think or want or feel: it does what it sees fit and what is for its own good. It was not, it judged, in its own interests to see more British soldiers dying in this little place and so they did what they deemed necessary. It’s no doubt a submerged awareness of this lofty disregard that is agitating unionist politicians this morning. That, and the election, stupid.