Tony Blair told Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee last month that without the letters sent to so called ‘On The Runs’ (OTRs) the peace process may have failed. This is a crucial insight into the decision making of a key architect of an end to violence in Northern Ireland. In a very polarised debate it raises the question as to the cost of peace.
The price we all must pay to walk our own street without fear of violence is heavy. Under the Good Friday Agreement convicted paramilitaries were released on license. OTRs are those suspected or wanted for such activities but are not covered by the Agreement, due to either a lack of conviction or their escape from custody. As with prisoners, OTRs were important leverage used to bring Sinn Fein into constitutional politics and thus end the IRA’s campaign of terror. Thus, in 1999 a series of letters began to be sent assuring these individuals that they were no longer being actively pursued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Peaking in 2007 over 200 suspects were sent such letters.
While it was later ruled that the letters were not secret, they certainly fell outside of public knowledge. That was until February last year, when the trial of John Downey collapsed after a judge ruled that such a letter gave him immunity from prosecution. Mr Downey had been charged in connection with the 1982 Hyde Park Bombing which left four soldiers dead. As one would expect, a suspected murderer being acquitted due to an official guarantee that the police were not actively seeking him caused uproar. Peter Robinson even threatened to resign if there was not a judge led inquiry. This was promptly established under Lady Justice Hallett.
Lady Justice Hallett’s review found that while the letters did not amount to a general amnesty, serious mistakes were made in the implementation of the programme. In particular, the assurance given to Mr Downey by the PSNI that no British police force was seeking him was done without checking with their colleagues on the mainland. As has now become clear the Metropolitan Police wanted him in relation to bombings in London which left a total of twelve dead. The judge led review has not been the end of the matter, with the British Parliament subsequently getting involved.
Black and white
Many readers will be unused to a debate about whether the police should continue to seek justice for crimes no less grave than murder. It is black and white. This reasoning is based on the luxury of being brought up and living in a normal society. Unfortunately Northern Ireland is not this society. Things are not black and white in a country with such a troubled and violent past. Nevertheless, the major political parties would have us believe that things are clearly defined. In the case of OTRs, the DUP have taken a strong stance against it while the policy was a key demand of Sinn Fein. A similar divide emerged when Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was arrested last year in connection to the murder of Jean McConville. It would be easy to assume, especially given Sinn Fein’s past, that the divide would always be such, yet Northern Ireland is never short of paradoxes. Sinn Fein have been very vocal in pushing for criminal investigations on the back of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, while the DUP have been equally steadfast in opposing any such moves against members of the security forces.
This is not an easy topic and I will not pretend I have all the answers. My moral compass tells me that a murderer is still a murderer. I find it absolutely abhorrent that people who did unspeakable things walk the streets free. Justice would see them stand trial, convicted if guilty and punished accordingly; whether they did it in the name of orange or green. Nonetheless, I support the OTR letters, just as I support the prisoner releases after Good Friday. I do so for the same reason that the British Government agreed to suspend justice, that they were necessary steps towards achieving peace in Northern Ireland. Consequently, the cost of peace is that I must walk the same streets as murderers (convicted or otherwise) and indeed see convicted terrorists serve in government.
To use an utilitarian argument such as this is dangerous. The ‘greater good’ has been used throughout history by brutal regimes as justification for terrible deeds, in particular when it was expedient to ignore justice, either legally or morally. Usually this results in the loss of life, making it easy to reject its philosophical basis. However, what happens when bypassing justice preserves lives like it undoubtedly has done in Northern Ireland?
Costs of peace
This is a difficult trade-off for anyone to accept. Being taught the difference between right and wrong is an important part of growing up, as is learning how wrongdoing deserves punishment. Without presuming guilt, what the OTRs are accused of undoubtedly represents wrongdoing. This is even more clear when it comes to paramilitaries released as part of the peace process, all of whom were convicted in a court of law.
Loyalist terrorist Michael Stone, for example, was released after only 13 years of a 684 year sentence for the murder of three. This was a heinous crime, and justice would involve Stone spending the rest of his natural life in prison. While in prison he became a key leader among the loyalist prisoners, acting as a representative on their behalf to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam in 1999. This was part of efforts to get loyalist paramilitaries to give up violence. Their reward for renouncing terror was freedom. The same was offered to republicans. The result of this was twofold. Not only did it sign the prisoners, an important opinion group for both sides, up to the agreement; it also ensured their continuing support. Since their release is conditional on their respective terrorist group remaining inactive, it was in these prisoners’ own self-interest to became major advocates for continued peace. The same logic works for OTRs. The case of Michael Stone also illustrates the conditionality of release. After attempting to assassinate Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at Stormont in 2006 his license was revoked and he was returned to prison.
Price paid by victims
Although the suspension of justice is a burden on those who never participated or supported violence, this pales in comparison with the price paid by victims. In 2010 I was at a conference in Belfast which finished with a discussion of reconciliation on a divided fictitious island, a quite obvious allusion to Northern Ireland. The debated heated up over prisoner releases, and I’m sure had the OTR letters been public knowledge they would have been part of the discussion as well. As the only person in our group who supported prisoner releases (on the purely practical basis of achieving peace, rather than on reconciliation or more militant grounds) I was challenged on a number of issues. One person asked whether I would feel differently if one of my family had been murdered and I had to see the person responsible walk free. At the time I couldn’t answer the question, but having thought about it many times since I now have an answer. Of course I would think differently, and I can never truly understand the suffering many families continue to feel. For my part, I am very thankful that I have never experienced their loss, and hopefully never will. Peace means no more victims; dissidents are still active but not on the same scale as 1999. Thus achieving peace stops us experiencing the loss and the fear experienced by generations before. Tony Blair reminded us last week that this could only have been achieved by putting this end goal above all other issues of morality.
People from across the world study the peace process in Northern Ireland to find the ‘secret ingredient’ in resolving their own conflicts. Rather than study the institutions, the mechanisms or the personalities involved, the lesson they should take is peace can only be achieved by putting it above all else. In Northern Ireland this occurred as weariness set into to paramilitaries, the public, and the State. The settlement was far from perfect, and had many bumps along the way, but it ended the vast majority of violence. For instance, neither Palestinians and Israelis should expect a just outcome, just a peaceful one. Until both sides are willing to accept this there can be no end to the cycle of violence. This is the real lesson Northern Ireland has for the world.