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13 November 2018updated 26 Jul 2021 1:32pm

How a group of Tory MPs could stop Northern Irish families ever getting justice

An amnesty for British troops would anger nationalists but also unionists.

By Simon Jones

On a June morning in 1974, John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old with a mental age of between six and ten, left his house in a village in County Armagh and encountered a British Army unit, a common sight in the most violent decade of the Troubles, and never returned. An incident occurred, the details of which have never been examined publicly, but what is known is that John was shot in the back and that his family have never seen his killer face justice.

Now a band of Conservative MPs is trying to make sure that they never do.

Richard Benyon MP served with the Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland and is the architect of the legislation calling for British troops to be exempt from legal action ten years after the end of a conflict.

His bill would not prevent public prosecutors from investigating alleged crimes, but it would not be possible to bring charges against a former member of the armed forces. Curiously, its author felt it necessary to specifically outlaw prosecution for “murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide”.

If passed, the legislation would place Britain with such human rights luminaries as Chile under Pinochet, dictatorship-era Argentina, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in exempting its military from civilian justice.

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What began as a fringe notion among a group of ex-servicemen on the Tory backbenches appears to be generating sympathy within the government. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said in her infamous September interview that she sympathised with servicemen being “hounded” since the end of the conflict. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson reportedly wrote to Theresa May earlier this year urging a statute of limitations as a necessary remedy for former British soldiers.

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The chair of the Commons Defence Committee, Dr Julian Lewis, has also spoken in favour of a statute of limitations – an amnesty by any other name.

The truth is, predictably, more complex. Ex-servicemen are being “hounded” by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and public prosecutors in the Historical Investigations Team – the same institutions which would investigate any civilian murder in Northern Ireland. The PSNI pointed out earlier this year that only around a third of investigations relate to the armed forces.

Ex-soldiers are being pursued for crimes against British citizens, some with no suspected links with any paramilitary groups – a pattern of killings which could be read as being closer to state terrorism than simple extrajudicial killing. The De Silva review, published in 2012, found that state agents were involved in the murder of Pat Finucane, a successful Catholic lawyer from Belfast, whose clients were from all sides of the conflict.

The possibility that elements of the British state colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to dispose of people who might stand in its way is heinous enough, but to refuse to allow civilian oversight of the military or security forces responsible is another injury on top of thousands of others.

One of the common refrains from those favouring amnesty is that the majority of killings in the Troubles were perpetrated by paramilitaries or republican groups. The Historical Investigations Team has helped unearth the true extent of collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries.

Collusion saw hundreds of crimes carried out at the direction of, or with assistance from, British Military Intelligence, MI5 and the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch. Earlier this year, Gary Haggarty was jailed for hundreds of crimes carried out while he served both as a senior figure in a loyalist paramilitary and a paid informant of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 

Anybody arguing that the scorecard of killings justifies ignoring some crimes would do well to realise that their information has been out of date for at least 15 years. We know now that much of the British state’s lethal activities in Northern Ireland were carried out by paramilitary proxies. Former paramilitary members have told journalists and investigators of their role in murdering civilians and suspected republican paramilitary members, but also of the targeting of civilians and the sharing of intelligence such as addresses and photographs by the intelligence services.

In other cases, such as on Bloody Sunday and in routine dealings with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the predecessor to the PSNI, Catholic citizens’ human rights were systematically infringed by British forces. We know now that the official death toll caused by British troops against civilians in cases such as John Pat Cunningham’s is likely only a fraction of that committed by the security forces. 

The prospect of amnesty for crimes committed under the Troubles does not enjoy popular support in Northern Ireland, where the lack of any formal truth and reconciliation process loads any talk of amnesty with the political question “for whom?” An amnesty for British troops would anger nationalists but also unionists, with paramilitary organisations on both sides having contributed to the death toll during the conflict. The DUP is also against a Northern Ireland-specific amnesty.

A one-sided amnesty would be an unpleasant way to remind everyone of the fickle loyalties the British state had for its colleagues in the shadows, who continue to face trials for their actions during the Troubles. 

Benyon’s bill is scheduled for its second Commons reading on 23 November. It remains to be seen whether the government will act decisively against legislation from its own party designed to extend legal cover to people accused of murdering its own civilians.