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No justice, no peace process

Carol Ann Kelly was murdered forty years ago in Northern Ireland. But she wasn’t killed by a paramilitary gunman from either side of the aisle, unionist or republican. She was instead killed by an arm of the British state when, at twelve years old, she was pelted in the back of the head with rubber bullets by members of the British Army. As she lay motionless, just ten yards from her home, paramedics were unable to breach the hastily assembled military cordon, and she later died while on life support. The soldiers claimed they feared for their life amidst a riot. In reality, she was simply playing in the street with two other young girls whilst fetching a carton of milk for an elderly neighbour. 

No one has ever been charged in connection with her death, nor has any official inquiry ever been launched. A recent government announcement means that justice for Carol Ann Kelly and many other innocent victims is more unobtainable now than at any point since that fateful day in 1981.

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate the headlines amidst the controversy on ‘Freedom Day’ and its implications, the government subtly betrayed countless families traumatised by conflict. In proposing to establish a statute of limitations, effectively amounting to a total amnesty for offences committed during the Troubles, Boris Johnson’s Conservative party have mishandled the situation in a way that is foolish and sinister.

First and foremost, this decision does little to maintain a fragile peace process as it pleases nobody. It will instead be widely viewed as a betrayal. 

It betrays the families of victims on all sides, who overwhelmingly resent this new legislation. It blatantly betrays the principles of devolution as it is not backed by any of Stormont’s major parties across the political spectrum, from Sinn Féin to the Democratic Unionist Party. 

Westminster has arrogantly imposed itself upon delicate proceedings. The Stormont House Agreement, flawed and frustrating as it may be, represented a cross-party effort to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. The previous legislation is not adored by either side of the Unionist/Republican divide, but at least it was drawn up by politicians beholden to these same constituents. At least it was formed amidst some sort of consensus.

Answering the shrill shrieks from the Daily Mail and other nationalist warmongers who decried a so called “witch hunt” that might have brought the killers of Carol Ann Kelly and many other victims of British war crimes to justice, the government has abandoned attempts to build on a difficult consensus. 

The Prime Minister claimed in the House of Commons that this reckless behaviour will help “draw a line” under the conflict. Yet the outcry heard from across the Irish Sea, even if it falls upon deaf English ears, suggests he is sorely mistaken. 

Admittedly, this is a difficult issue for any politician to navigate, and there are reasons why the government’s decision can be justified. Efforts to prosecute those responsible for paramilitary violence perpetrated by both sides is problematic, given that the peace brokered in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was only made possible by ensuring these organisations laid down their arms and ceased their bombing campaigns, often in exchange for immunity. Reopening these cases may fly in the face of what was agreed between these groups and the British government. Any breach of the principles of the conditional ceasefire must be viewed with anxious suspicion.

But ensuring these same protections apply to soldiers who murdered innocent civilians is questionable. At the height of the violence, Margaret Thatcher echoed the sentiment of the British approach to Northern Ireland when she said her government would never negotiate with terrorists. Even though Bobby Sands and others starved themselves to death inside dilapidated British jails over the issue, members of paramilitary organisations like the IRA were always treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. 

What this implies is that British forces, such as the infamous Parachute Regiment who killed thirteen protesters on Bloody Sunday, were waging a ‘more legitimate’ campaign than their opponents, a ‘just war’ against organisations who were morally reprehensible. 

Surely then, they should be held to a far higher standard than those the government treated as terrorists? A decision to close all investigations into deaths caused by the supposedly legitimate campaigns undertaken by security forces, who were acting on behalf of several governments in what is supposed to be a functioning democracy, is a shameful contradiction to this logic. The killers of Carol Ann Kelly committed what amounts to a war crime whilst serving as agents of the British state. If any government wants to appear ethical, it cannot allow its representatives and institutions to behave in this manner.

Even for those who cling to the idea that prosecutions for soldiers and not paramilitaries is unfair, this decision should still cause outrage amongst all of those who claim to care for justice. It isn’t just that the perpetrators of state-sanctioned murder will escape prosecution. The real issue is that this is a deceitful effort to whitewash history.

Granting all army veterans immunity whilst not continuing meaningful official enquiries into their atrocities is the latest effort in a long running campaign by the British state to silence the victims of military violence and mask the true nature of Britain’s activities in Ireland. It is wrong to say Johnson has made a blunder, as clumsy as his impositions over Stormont may be. Because this isn’t just foolish, but nefarious and troubling.

The work of Ian Cobain and other bold investigative journalists has exposed the grim realities of Operation Banner, the long running military campaign that created a permanent British military presence in Ireland from 1969. Soldiers regularly terrorised Irish communities and committed a painfully long list of atrocities against innocent people. Yet most troubling of all, Britain’s political establishment made every effort to ensure it never faced scrutiny for the brutality inflicted upon countless civilians, actively and purposefully suppressing information in a desperate bid to make accountability impossible.

The murder of Pat Finucane is a key example of this pattern of behaviour. 

Finucane was a catholic lawyer in Belfast who successfully mounted a series of legal challenges against the British government throughout the Troubles. His unwavering commitment to fighting for human rights, even for controversial figures such as Bobby Sands, made him a hero to some but a nuisance to others. His valiant efforts earned him powerful enemies, chief among them the British security state and its agents.

He was shot 14 times by a loyalist paramilitary in his home in 1989, in front of his wife and three children. A mountain of evidence suggests this wasn’t a random sectarian killing, but an assassination committed in collusion with the state. 

Make no mistake, this isn’t some wild conspiracy theory. Two public investigations reached the same horrifying conclusion – that the killing was a clear example of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces. A judge even reportedly told Pat’s determined widow, Geraldine, that the plot to kill her husband may have even reached Cabinet level and the very upper echelons of British governance. Finucane was a civilian political opponent who may well have been assassinated by elements of our own government. To abandon enquiries into such incidents as if they are unimportant is a shameless and transparent attempt to maintain a decades long cover up.

No U.K. government has ever been open about British activities in Northern Ireland. This recent announcement upholds this unspoken consensus. Those who have spent anytime investigating the conflict, or indeed so many other British army interventions into civilian areas, know why. The truth would be catastrophic for Britain’s reputation around the world, and the establishment would rather mourning families be tortured for decades than allow a light to be shone on its many sins. 

When Johnson speaks of drawing a line under the conflict, one thing is certain. His efforts allow the history of the conflict and Britain’s reprehensible role in Ireland’s suffering to be masked in a shadow of secrecy and hidden behind a veil of ignorance.

If the events of Bloody Sunday, which saw fourteen innocent Catholics murdered on the streets of Derry, was properly investigated and understood in the British memory, we might be forced to recognise some uncomfortable truths. 

The bloodiest years of fighting occurred after the 1972 massacre, as a resurgent militant republicanism saw the IRA’s ranks swell and their bombing campaign accelerate. 

This was not a coincidence. Having seen civil rights activists slaughtered in the streets for the crime of peacefully protesting injustice, scores of Irishmen and women dropped the banners and placards and instead reached for the armalite rifle and incendiary device. Horrendous episodes like this massacre radicalised many into supporting violent insurrection. Veteran journalist Peter Taylor referred to the events of Bloody Sunday as the greatest recruitment tool that the IRA ever had, and with good reason. 

Only in learning from such disastrous failures omnipresent in Operation Banner and other British expeditions might future security policy be delivered without such horrendous human cost. But this requires reflection upon the part of powerful institutions such as the army, and with Johnson and his cronies at the helm, this appears impossible. 

This attempt to ‘draw a line’ under the Troubles isn’t welcome to those it impacts upon, and as part of a long running effort to suppress information that casts shame upon so much of Britain’s past and present role in the conflicts of yesterday and today, it should concern all of us. The precedent it sets about how the United Kingdom seeks to deal with war crimes committed in the name of its citizens is deeply unsettling.

The words “blessed are those who hunger for justice” are still scrawled upon walls across Ireland as the struggle is set to continue in the courts and on the streets. It is an appalling tragedy that the families of Carol Ann Kelly, Pat Finucane, and countless other victims of state-sanctioned violence will continually be starved of any sense of truth and accountability. Boris Johnson, each of his spineless collaborators in government and his countless apologists in Britain’s gutter-worthy press should cower with shame.

Image via Albert Bridge

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