By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)
Back in 1998 the SDLP supported the early release of political prisoners. At that time the SDLP also knew that there was an anomaly in the early release scheme in relation to other people who were on the run. It knew that Sinn Féin would argue and lobby for the right of republicans to return to their homes. Four years ago - but more specifically in 2003 - the British government agreed to resolve that anomaly in the context of ‘acts of completion’ by the IRA.
It was no secret.
Last week, however, whilst addressing the issue of OTRs (on the runs) the British government took advantage of the situation to announce that its forces could, when it becomes law, also avail of the ‘Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill’ for offences which predate the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
This means that RUC men, British soldiers, undercover soldiers, agents and informers against whom evidence might emerge from ongoing inquiries (or from their own mouths in the unlikely event of them confessing) will be granted immunity, will never go to jail and probably will never face prosecution either, given that such a decision will lie with the Public Prosecution Service.
Even with this ‘sweetener’ Conservative and unionist opponents of the measure are still outraged at the equivalence between state violence and subversion - given that state violence is invariably ‘good violence’ and all other is ‘bad violence’! Tory spokesperson on Ireland, David Lidington, said: “Members of our armed forces and police officers are to be placed on a par with terrorists. That is morally repugnant.”
Even the BBC had a problem accusing state forces of spilling blood. Its political correspondent Gareth Gordon referred to the bill as also covering “misdemeanours by security force personnel”. Shooting down marchers, killing kids with plastic bullets and colluding in hundreds of assassinations are ‘misdemeanours’?
Relatives of loved ones killed by the British Army and the RUC, or as a result of collusion, were understandably livid at the possibility that the culprits who murdered their kith and kin will escape accountability. They have campaigned for years, not for vengeance, which is what drives the self-righteous opponents of the bill, but for the truth about who was ultimately responsible for the killings. Many believe that the chain of command reached into 10 Downing Street.
Whilst the British have used the occasion to extend the list of those who qualify, the Irish government has taken the opportunity to formalise the discriminate exclusion of others. Thus, whilst those who organised or carried out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and other killings would effectively be amnestied, those republicans implicated in the death of Garda Jerry McCabe would remain fugitives.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan jibed Sinn Féin and accused it of negotiating an amnesty for rogue members of the RUC and British Army. For sheer opportunism it was hard to match and his remarks were clearly aimed at turning the families of victims of state violence against Sinn Féin, families whom the SDLP had ignored when they lobbied the party at Stormont and Westminster.
(The remarks were also a bit rich coming only days after Durkan and his MPs - claiming to act against the evil of 90-day detention orders - voted in favour of 28-day detention orders, which, if passed gives the PSNI and the Special Branch, amongst others, extraordinary powers to abuse prisoners. We already know what happened to suspects under 7-day detention orders.)
The inclusion of state forces in the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill was done unilaterally by the British government, as Mark Durkan knows only too well. However, Durkan’s outburst has to be seen in context and that context is the relentless campaign by the SDLP and political parties in the South to demonise Sinn Féin and undermine its electoral prospects. For them, republicans are the eternal enemy, not Britain nor those sectarians opposed to equality and justice.
Remember the Dublin government lecturing republicans that there was a political alternative to armed struggle which they could use to compete on an equal basis with all the other parties? Last weekend Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that under no circumstances would Fianna Fail go into coalition with Sinn Féin, nor was it prepared to act as a minority government dependent on the support of Sinn Féin. In order to undermine the party his message to the electorate is that a vote for Sinn Féin is a wasted vote because Sinn Féin, regardless of how well it does in the next election, is not going into government, will not help form the government and will have no influence on government.
Ahern’s position is contradictory and hypocritical. He says that stability and prosperity in the North requires Sinn Féin to be in coalition government but stability and prosperity in the South requires Sinn Féin not to be in coalition government! His approach is no different from how the DUP on councils such as Lisburn or Ballymena treats the elected representatives of the nationalist community - banished to opposition forever. Already the DUP are using Ahern’s argument as a pretext for refusing to share power with Sinn Féin.
In recent times we have seen the SDLP describe itself as a united Ireland party, Fianna Fail announce that Easter 1916 is to be commemorated again, and Fine Gael announce that it is the true inheritor of Sinn Féin and that Michael Collins was a great shot.
That the attacks on Sinn Féin have intensified since the IRA put all of its weapons beyond use and declared the armed struggle over shows how much the parties fear the rise of republicanism across Ireland.
Danny Morrison is a regular media commentator on Irish politics. He is the author of three novels and three works of non-fiction. His play about the IRA, ‘The Wrong Man’, begins a three-week run in the Pleasance Theatre, London, from March 12.