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‘Immunity for terrorists’: Is the Irish peace process unraveling?

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: March 03, 2014 11:05
A police officer guards the rear entrance of Westminster Magistrates Court as the van carrying bombing suspect John Downey leaves, in London May 22, 2013. (Reuters / Suzanne Plunkett)

The political firestorm over the British government’s letters granting de facto immunity from prosecution to suspected participants of Irish violence is only the latest symptom of the malaise that grips a process of ending the three-decade conflict.

Unionist leaders and politicians have expressed outrage over what they claim was an agreement reached behind their backs between the Irish Sinn Fein and the British government to give assurances to people whom they consider terrorists that they would not be prosecuted for alleged involvement in paramilitary violence.

The scandal broke with the collapse of court proceedings against John Downey, who’d just gone on trial for his alleged involvement in the Hyde Park bombing in London in 1982, during which four British soldiers – members of the Blues and Royals – were killed while performing a military ceremony. Seven horses were also killed in the attack and 31 civilians were injured. Another bomb planted by the IRA close by in Regent’s Park exploded later on the same day, killing a further seven British soldiers – this time members of the Royal Green Jackets – as they were performing music to a public audience. It was a spectacular attack, with the fact that horses were also killed adding an extra dimension to the revulsion that was felt throughout Britain in its wake.

Reuters / Paul McErlane

Downey was allowed to go free when his legal team produced one of the letters sent to the so-called “On the Runs,” those republicans who were still on the run after the Good Friday Agreement, assuring him that he would not be arrested and prosecuted for his alleged involvement in this or any other attack as a member of the IRA. It has triggered a political crisis, which at time of writing promises to run and run.

However, the point should not be lost. The conflict in the North of Ireland, which was also played out on the British mainland, was a consequence of the failure of successive British governments to deal with the political and civil rights denied Catholics in a Protestant/loyalist controlled partitioned statelet. Implicit in the peace process, which finally brought the conflict to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, was the acknowledgement and recognition that it had been a political conflict, in which those involved were motivated by political and not criminal aims.

A particular sore point for the political establishment is the rights of the families of the victims of paramilitary violence to justice. It was pressure on this level that British Prime Minister David Cameron was responding to when he immediately announced a judicial review into the letters and the entire government policy with respect to On the Runs.

It is undoubtedly a hard pill to swallow for any family member or loved one of someone killed by paramilitary violence to see their killer or killers escape justice. But innocent civilians were killed by all sides during the conflict – by republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and by the British army and other crown forces. However here there is a danger in losing sight of the overriding objective of the Good Friday Agreement in ensuring that there are no more families left grieving as a result of conflict and violence.

Though it may be hard for many to accept, members of the IRA and other republican paramilitary groups believed that the conflict was a legitimate war of national liberation to free six counties in the North of Ireland from what they called foreign occupation. And even though abandoning violence in favor of a political process, they continue to believe it.

Perhaps this is why we have witnessed in recent years a concerted and relentless attempt by the unionist political establishment to criminalize the republican movement. Revisiting the history of the conflict, painting those involved on the republican/nationalist side as terrorists who were engaged in acts of mass murder and wholesale criminality, we see a growing crisis within unionism over the perception that nationalist and republican communities have gained from the peace process at their expense.

Accusations that nationalist communities in the province have received more from central government by way of grants for community and development projects have fed a growing sense of resentment within loyalism. There is also a prevalent belief that Protestant tradition within the province is under threat as nationalists/Catholics gain more political influence and parity.

Police in riot gear look on as protesters wave Union Flags in front of the City Hall provoked by a decision to remove the British flag from Belfast's City Hall (Reuters / Cathal McNaughton)

This was recently played out when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall to specific holidays and special occasions, as is the case in towns and cities throughout the mainland. The response from loyalists was weeks of illegal and disruptive street protests, involving violence. The annual parades season every summer continues to be a period of tension, as loyalists refuse to compromise over what they consider is their right to march close to nationalist communities regardless of the provocative nature of what are triumphalist displays of Protestant militancy.

The lack of cohesion within unionism and loyalist communities has produced a crisis of leadership whereby a growing disconnect between the political leadership and the people they are meant to lead is at breaking point. This was evident during the aforementioned flag protests, when rather than take steps to calm the situation and end the disruption, unionist politicians were actively encouraging them, doing so in an attempt to maintain or gain credibility with those to whom republicans and Catholics remain enemies to be vanquished rather than partners in a peace process.

The only beneficiaries of this attitude are the extreme elements on either side, those who would like nothing more than a return to conflict. Dissident republicanism has gained traction, especially among alienated youth within republican communities, over the past few years, and crises such as this latest one can only feed a rising disenchantment with the status quo.

Sadly, and significantly, the peace walls separating opposing communities in places like Belfast and Derry will not be coming down anytime soon.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.