Northern Ireland needs to deal with its past

MLAs will meet at Stormont today to consider the previous UK government’s agreement to write to 187 members of the IRA on the run offering them effective immunity from prosecution.

MLAs will meet at Stormont today to consider the previous UK government’s agreement to write to 187 members of the IRA on the run offering them effective immunity from prosecution.

The meeting comes on the back of first minister Peter Robinson threatening to quit unless a judicial review was launched into the matter.

Yesterday’s announcement by Number 10 of a judge led inquiry may have averted the immediate prospect of the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsing altogether, but today’s meeting of the Assembly will be frosty.

On the one side will be Peter Robinson, staring straight at Martin McGuinness, angered that he was not made aware of the scheme run by the last and now this UK government.

Behind him will sit his fellow DUP MLAs, many of whom have concluded that had they known about the scheme they would not have entered into a power sharing government with Sinn Fein.

Then there are the more extreme elements of the unionist community, such as Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, who has accused Peter Robinson of caving in to accepting a judge led inquiry rather than a full judicial review.

Northern Ireland’s political leaders now face a crunch point. The past, one of those elements of the peace process that have proved so difficult to resolve, has now come to the very centre of national attention.

There are no easy solutions to the problem. Loyalist quite rightly expect justice for their relatives, but equally the delicate balancing act needs to be secured between achieving this and fostering and protecting the peace process that has prevented more people dying.

Providing its strong backing to Peter Robinson’s tough stance, the Newsletter has said of the revelations:

“The IRA killed almost as many people as did every other actor in the Troubles, yet Britain is being blamed for violence generally, and for more and more specific acts.

“Now we learn, shortly after the police appealed for witnesses to come forward to assist the criminal investigation into Bloody Sunday, that republican terrorists cannot be prosecuted for calculated massacres.

“This raises the prospect of old men being jailed for having lost control (to an appalling extent) as young men in a public order situation that they did not want to be in 42 years ago, while deliberate sectarian murderers get an amnesty.

“The IRA carried out Bloody Friday, Claudy, Birmingham, Guildford, Kingsmills, La Mon, Hyde Park, Ballygawley, Enniskillen and Warrington, and laid the template for Omagh, as well as the template for the dissident murders of vulnerable individual targets.

“Unionists have long known that many people in Whitehall, at the behest of pressure from Dublin (and Irish nationalists at home and abroad), would merrily wipe this slate clean.

“But this latest revelation of secret letters to on the runs is so appalling, and reveals such a craven approach to Sinn Fein-IRA, that Peter Robinson is right to demand the recall of Stormont and to draw a line in the sand.”

The Belfast Telegraph, however, has sought to broaden the matter out. Whilst welcoming the prime minister’s decision to launch an inquiry, the fact remains, it argues, that it is a sign that Northern Ireland must seriously consider how it can address its past so it can move forward to the future. As its editorial concludes:

“The abiding lesson from this episode is that our continued failure to deal with the legacy of the Troubles will come back to haunt us repeatedly.

“Unionists say the political furore means the Haass recommendations on the past must go on the long finger and that inter-party talks on them cannot take place because of a lack of trust. Surely the imperative to deal with the past is now even greater than ever?”

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