One Man’s Lonely Quest to Close the Door on Northern Ireland’s Troubles

If John Larkin, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, has his way, crimes perpetrated before the end of the country’s three-decade conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists will no longer be prosecuted. That conflict, better known as the Troubles, left 3,500 people dead and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday agreements. But 15 ...

DARDE/AFP/Getty Images
DARDE/AFP/Getty Images

If John Larkin, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, has his way, crimes perpetrated before the end of the country’s three-decade conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists will no longer be prosecuted. That conflict, better known as the Troubles, left 3,500 people dead and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday agreements. But 15 years after the conflict’s end, over 3,000 killings remain unsolved and unprosecuted. In short, Larkin is proposing to the close the book on the darkest chapter of Northern Ireland’s history.

On the heels of Larkin’s announcement Wednesday to end pre-Good Friday prosecutions, the attorney general has come under a hailstorm of criticism. (Notably, the announcement came as former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass visited Belfast for his own reconciliation project.) "Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date," said Jim Alluster, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party; Patrick Corrigan, a representative from Amnesty International, called the plan "an utter betrayal of victims’ fundamental right to access justice."

If Larkin’s plan is adopted, it could mean an end to prosecutions in such famous incidents as 1972’s Bloody Sunday killings, the massacre of 13 Irish protesters by British soldiers; the alleged kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army later that year; the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, where 11 Protestant workers were gunned down by republican paramilitary members; and the unsolved murders of hundreds of "Disappeared," as those who were taken by the IRA and never heard from again are known.

As a result, Larkin’s proposal has been roundly criticized as a de facto amnesty law. But that’s only half true. According to Larkin and others involved in building pre-Good Friday cases, there are hardly any prosecutions to speak of, and there probably aren’t going to be many more.

That reality raises a painful question for the people of Northern Ireland. Thousands of victims from the Troubles will likely never see justice, and Larkin’s proposal is a surprisingly frank acknowledgement of that reality. But is that a reality the country is prepared to live with?

"More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year," Larkin told the BBC. "It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries."

Larkin’s proposal has coincided with a spate of revelations about state-backed violence during the Troubles. On Thursday, the BBC aired interviews with former British soldiers who claim that unarmed civilians were killed as part of their work "hunting down" IRA members. A specialized unit based in Belfast during the 1970s, the soldiers’ mission was to "to draw out the IRA and to minimize their activities," one ex-soldier explained. "If they needed shooting, they’d be shot." Just last month, a new investigation was opened in the case the Keady pub bombing, in which security forces allegedly colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to carry out an attack that left two dead . It’s estimated that 11 percent of the deaths under review are the responsibility of the state.

Questions have been raised by the British government as well as independent human rights organizations about the effectiveness of the institutions responsible for finding out what happened in these myriad unsolved cases. Earlier this year, the Historical Enquiries Team, a special unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland charged by the British government with investigating crimes committed during the Troubles, was accused of mishandling murder cases involving the military, winning it a vote of no confidence from Northern Ireland’s Police Board. It also comes on the heels of an Amnesty International report that claimed, "The lack of political will to address the past remains the greatest obstacle" for coming to terms with the country’s violent past.

In addition to the inherent difficulty in investigating and prosecuting decades-old crimes, efforts to bring the Troubles to an end have thrown up a series of obstacles to successfully carrying out prosecutions. As part of a disarmament treaty in 1997, thousands of weapons that could have served as crucial forensic evidence were destroyed. In 1999, new legislation exempted from use in prosecution information that brought about the recovery of the bodies of the "Disappeared." And even if a case could be cobbled together, the Sentencing Act 1998 capped time served at two years for crimes committed as part of the Troubles.

Given these difficulties, Larkin is arguing that justice could be better served by opening state records to the public, so the historical record can be set straight. "What I am saying is take the lawyers out of it," Larkin told the Belfast Telegraph. "The people who should be getting history right are historians, so in terms of recent history, the people who are making the greatest contribution are often journalists."

Though Larkin’s proposed halt to pre-1998 investigations was met with a chorus of criticism, Adrian Guelke, a professor of politics at Queens College in Belfast, claims the public desire for recriminations has been overstated and that Larkin’s plan offers a way to move beyond entrenched grievances. "We should recognize that the prosecutions aren’t going to be a way forward," Guelke said in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. "Yes, [Larkin] was trying to find a way for people to find out the truth about the past, but at the same time, he wanted to find a way to prevent people’s false expectations [for successful prosecutions] from being a constant problem." The false promise of a prosecution that will never occur, Larkin seems to be arguing, is a unique form of cruelty, one that refuses to acknowledge the reality that the vast majority of murders will probably never be prosecuted — regardless of the amnesty proposal.

The power to carry out Larkin’s proposal lies with elected politicians, not the appointed attorney general, and if the immediate reaction is any indication, its chances of becoming law are slim in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron hedged on the prospect of halting prosecutions. "I think it’s rather dangerous to think that you can put some sort of block on that," he said. "But of co
urse we are all interested in ways in which people can reconcile and come to terms with the bloody past, so that they can build a viable future and a shared future for Northern Ireland." As Paddy Woodworth, a journalist for the Irish Times told Foreign Policy, the suggestion has been attacked from all sides, the greatest difference being that "people have varied in the ardor and the fervor with which they have rejected it."

Still, there have been a few glimmers of support that recognize that this proposal, or one like it, might help the country heal its bloody past. An editorial in the Irish Times said, that while Larkin has endured a harsh backlash, "at the very least he has catapulted a never-ending grim debate that takes place mostly in the background to the forefront of political and community discourse." Northern Ireland has never had the kind of reconciliation with its past that South Africa did (though Desmond Tutu did made a less ambitious attempt on the BBC in 2006), but it has tracked a slow path away from the cyclical, vengeful recriminations that marked the Troubles.

Larkin’s apparently doomed plan might just be one more step.

Thomas Stackpole is an Assistant Editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tom_stackpole

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