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The UK’s controversial amnesty for atrocities committed during Northern Ireland’s Troubles

Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has pushed through a bill that represents an effective blanket pardon for crimes committed by soldiers and paramilitary groups during the conflict

UK Northern Ireland
Protesters in Londonderry commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on January 30, 2023.CLODAGH KILCOYNE (REUTERS)
Rafa de Miguel

The first two rules when seeking an amnesty are that its benefits outweigh its harms, and that it has the consensus of all affected parties. Rishi Sunak’s Conservative British government managed to circumvent all the amendments in the House of Lords and pushed its controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill through the House of Commons last week. This is basically a blanket amnesty — with some conditionality — for all the crimes committed during the 30 years of bloody and sectarian conflict known as the Troubles. More than 3,500 people died during that period, when the British Army became fully involved in the war between the Provisional IRA and Unionist and Protestant paramilitary organizations.

Downing Street’s determination to push through its clean slate — aimed at preventing most prosecutions for killings by paramilitary groups and British soldiers during the conflict — has met with the rejection of all parties directly or indirectly affected: the main political parties in Northern Ireland, the British Labour Party opposition, the Dublin government and even Washington and the United Nations.

“There aren’t many things that all of the five main parties in Northern Ireland agree on but they all agreed this is wrong, and this is not victim-centred and not human-rights proofed,” said Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. His government has asked experts for a legal analysis of the law and has not ruled out appealing it before the European Court of Human Rights, a move that would add tension to relations between Dublin and London at a time of relative cordiality and stability.

Less chance of reconciliation

“Imposing an amnesty without consultation and without seeking consensus goes against international best practice and provides a structural context in which the chances of reconciliation are reduced, as it is imposed rather than facilitated,” said Laura McAtackney, a lecturer at the Radical Humanities Laboratory at the University of Cork.

There are at least 1,000 unsolved murders committed during the 30 years of the Troubles. The Conservative government’s aim is “end legal proceedings concerning Troubles-related conduct and provide conditional immunity from prosecution for those who cooperate with investigations conducted by a newly established Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery,” according to the text of the new law.

This new body, to be chaired by Justice Declan Morgan, is modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by Nelson Mandela’s government after the end of the racist and segregationist apartheid regime. Critics of the new law point out that the South African commission was launched immediately, when memories were still fresh. In the case of Northern Ireland, it is now 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the conflict but placed the victims at the center of the discussion and preserved the possibility of justice for atrocities yet to be resolved.

“We must be honest about what we can realistically deliver for people in circumstances where the prospects of achieving justice in the traditional sense are so vanishingly small,” Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told the House of Commons.

Beyond that frustration, however, the reason behind the U.K. government’s urgency lies in the case of “Soldier F,” whose identity has remained hidden to date and who is accused of murdering two demonstrators on the infamous Bloody Sunday of 1972, when 13 people participating in a civil rights rally in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, were killed by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. The Conservative government has closed ranks with most veterans’ associations to prevent the actions of British troops on Northern Irish territory from being prosecuted.

The legality of the amnesty

In the case of legislation that raises suspicions of provoking future friction with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), it is parliamentary custom in the United Kingdom for the minister responsible for the text to place his signature in the preamble, to make clear his or her conviction that the measure respects international law. Heaton-Harris has done so with the proposed amnesty. Beyond the possible challenge to the European justice system that Dublin or victims’ associations could push for — the law could exonerate acts against life or torture, expressly excluded from a general amnesty by the ECHR — no doubts have been raised at any time about the constitutionality of the Sunak government’s maneuver.

The U.K. has on previous occasions made use of the amnesty mechanism, the content of which — like any fundamentally political decision — may be ethically defensible or rejectable. In fact, Downing Street sees its proposal as falling into the category that U.S. legal scholar Ronald Slye of Seattle University has termed “corrective amnesty,” designed to “avoid enforcement of a law that, while still legitimate, is no longer useful.” It usually occurs, Slye explains, “after a dramatic change in the social and political environment,” and applies to crimes against the state such as treason, sedition, and rebellion.

The British government, like the U.S. government, has used the term amnesty, for example, to regularize the status in the country of immigrants — always defined as “illegal” even if they have not been convicted by a court — in 2008, 2009 and 2017. Sunak’s own administration, overwhelmed by the increase of people arriving in the UK across the English Channel, has considered a new amnesty.

The Policing and Crime Act of 2017, known as the “Alan Turing Act,” provided amnesty for all those convicted in previous decades for acts of homosexuality. The mathematician responsible for cracking the German Enigma code during World War II was convicted in 1952 for acts of indecency. Two years later, Turing committed suicide. Since the law was passed, nearly 50,000 people in the United Kingdom have benefited from the amnesty.

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