The outcry is almost as loud as it is surprising. The British government proposes to introduce a statute of limitation, which in everyday language means that it’ll not prosecute people involving in killings here before 1998. All five political parties have raised strong objections, as have victims’ support groups.
The loud part is obvious. I’ve just listened to B(ritish)BC Raidio Uladh interview a woman who lost her husband in an IRA attack. Yesterday Nolan had similar testimonies. The thing that the great majority of such testimonies share is that they are made by people who lost loved ones to republican violence.
No surprise there. Time and again we’ve had detailed and emotional interviews with those of a unionist background about the pain inflicted on them during the Troubles. The former First Minister Arlene Foster was always keen to remind us of the attempt that was made on her father’s life, or of the Enniskillen bomb. Similar reminders by those who lost loved ones at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries or state violence, or a combination of both, tended not to feature as regularly on the mainstream media.
Why the clear voice of unionist suffering but the muffled anguish of victims of state violence? There are all sorts of reasons, but a key one is that those who suffered at the hands of loyalist gunmen and/or state gunmen know that the perpetrators will never face justice. History has taught us that. The most obvious example is the Parachute regiment, which in broad daylight shot dead ten people in Ballymurphy in the autumn of 1971, and then went on to shoot dead fourteen more people in January 1972. And yet not a single soldier has served a single day in prison for these examples of brazen barbarism.
So the amnesty which the British government is proposing to deliver has in fact been operating for nearly half a century here, in terms of state forces. The killing of Pat Finucane, the killing of Rosemary Nelson, the thirty-three people slaughtered in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings – there are very few people who aren’t convinced that the British state was an actor in these atrocities. But the guilty people will never be brought to justice, and we’ve known that for decades.
That’s why most of the testimony by grieving relatives comes from the unionist community. They expect justice for the loss of their loved one, because they were victims of violent republicans. Those who were killed by the British state – well, these things happen in times of conflict, and death meted out by the legal authorities, while regrettable, was simply the honest attempt to halt terrorism.
Or to put it another way: death at the hands of British forces are sad but necessary, death at the hands of republican psychopaths unspeakably vile and must, somehow, be punished.