This morning’s Sun carries the story that all British soldiers involved in killings in Northern Ireland during the three decades of the Troubles now face investigation. More than 1,000 ex-service personnel ‘will be viewed as manslaughter or murder suspects in legal inquiry.’ According to information received by the paper, 238 ‘fatal incidents’ involving British forces are being re-investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Legacy Investigations Branch.
This is especially timely. In recent days I have been reading Austen Morgan’s new and so-far under-noticed book Tony Blair and the IRA. To my knowledge it is the first full account to date of the ‘on the runs’ scandal. This is the discovery made in 2014 – when the trial of John Downey for involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing was dramatically stopped at the Old Bailey – that the Blair government had done a secret deal as part of the Good Friday negotiations. This deal – kept from the public and some figures involved in the Agreement – saw letters sent to known IRA members involved in terrorism, assuring them that they would not face prosecution in the future. These people – so called ‘on the runs’ – benefited from what was essentially an amnesty.
The details as set out in Morgan’s book demonstrate that this was a secret deal. The primary participants on the British side were Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell. As Morgan concludes ‘The principal culprit is the UK government: it violated the principle of the rule of law, by permitting political interference in criminal justice. History will not absolve Tony Blair, and those who did his bidding’. As Morgan writes, there was no good reason for the deal ‘other than the prime minister’s need to secure his personal legacy with a Northern Ireland deal.’
As the recent rejection by the Columbian people at a referendum on their government’s deal with the Farc guerrillas shows, people who have suffered from terrorism tend to be loath to see those who participated in terrorism given amnesties. It is perfectly possible that if Tony Blair’s government had been open with the public about the amnesty letters to the ‘on the runs’ then the public in Northern Ireland would not have approved the Good Friday Agreement. But that would have been for the people to consider and to decide.
In any case – just one result of Blair’s covert action in Northern Ireland’s politics is that in 2016 the threat of prosecution hangs over British soldiers but not IRA terrorists. I am the first to admit (and have at book length) that some British soldiers behaved appallingly during the Troubles. Most, however, did not. In the interests of justice, a true peace deal and amnesty would apply to all sides or none. Perhaps the present government will have the political guts to have this argument out in the open.