The British government’s move to block official investigations into its history of war crimes in the north of Ireland has unleashed unprecedented anger at a historic act of British bad faith.
After some five decades of lies and delaying tactics, the British government has revealed details of broad legislation to end all criminal, coronial and civil investigations into killings carried out by members and agents of the British Crown Forces.
In a speech to the House of Commons embroidered laced with deception and dissembling, British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis claimed that “current and future generations would be condemned to division” if his government did not draw a veil over what he euphemistically described as “the Troubles”.
“It is... a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are,” he said. It was “clear the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working”.
London was forced to intervene as its former soldiers, facing trial for war crimes dating from the 1970s, could have been forced to admit under oath that they were acting under the orders of their superiors to murder Irish civilians.
In a brief statement to MPs, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week’s move would “draw a line under the Troubles”.
Johnson told MPs: “The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s.
“We are finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward.”
Although the move was vigorously signalled in advance by Tory officials and spin doctors, there was still shock among victims’ advocacy groups at the brazen nature o of the move.
The Pat Finucane Centre, named after one of the most infamous victims of British political assassinations, said the proposal to block all legal recourse for victims of state killings lowered the value of life under British rule.
“We woke up in a new world this morning. A world where the government can murder and retrospectively exonerate itself.
“That makes all of our lives worthless. We can be rubbed out with impunity as if we never existed. We cannot, will not, accept it,” said Anne Cadwallader, a case worker at the organisation.
Campaign group Relatives for Justice immediately began a campaign under the theme ‘Never Give Up’, featuring families of victims who have vowed to continue their justice campaigns after decades of British tactics to delay and frustrate their efforts.
In a statement, they said the proposal was “the mother of all cover ups”.
“We’re seeing de facto impunity,” said Relatives for Justice CEO Mark Thompson, whose own brother Peter was shot dead by British soldiers in Belfast in 1990.
“This is a government that doesn’t care a jot for human rights and the rule of law.”
“We were lectured in the conflict about the rule of law. Now we see the very opposite happen when they’re the ones in the dock,” he added.
The scale and the depth of the anger by victims was unprecedented.
Families of the ten massacred by soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971 who came together to watch the broadcast of Lewis’s statement to the House of Commons (pictured) said the proposals “will not be tolerated”.
A recent inquest found all of those killed were innocent victims of gun attacks by the British Parachute Regiment.
“We spent 50 years trying to prove that our loved ones were innocent, there are loads of families out there like us and they all need to know the same thing,” said Eileen McKeown, daughter of massacre victim Joseph Corr.
STORMONT PARTIES MEET
Stormont’s political leaders held a tense meeting with the Dublin and London governments on the issue on Friday.
“It was a fairly robust conversation,” said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. “Each of us outlined our views on the way forward in relation to legacy.”
Donaldson has joined other unionists in condemning what they said was an “equivalence” in the planned legislation between British state killers and IRA Volunteers, who are included in the effective amnesty.
The DUP leader and First Minister-designate also said “the opportunity for victims and families to pursue justice should not be closed off”.
Stormont’s largely powerless Justice Minister, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, said that her party would not “provide cover” for an amnesty.
Mrs Long said: “I was clear in the meeting this process has to be centred on victims, who have been re-traumatised this week thanks to the actions of the UK government,” she said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party remained committed to working with the other parties to support victims and survivors “to deliver truth and justice for the families”.
“Today’s meeting confirmed what we already knew, that the British government are acting in total bad faith and are trying to fabricate a process to give cover to the British government proceeding with amnesty legislation in the Autumn,” she said.
“They are now clearly intent on walking away from the Stormont House Agreement.”
Ms McDonald is to chair a meeting of the party leaders forum on Monday, but Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie accused Sinn Féin of using the meeting as a “political prop”, and said he wouldn’t be taking part.
Beattie said the meeting “did not provide any solutions for innocent victims” and said he did not want to see what he described as an “amnesty for terrorists”.
Stormont is also to be recalled on Tuesday after more than 30 Assembly members signed a recall petition introduced by the SDLP.
In what could set the scene for a major confrontation between the administrations in London and Belfast, the Assembly will debate a motion calling for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and for victims and survivors to have a “full, material and central role and input into the content and design of structures to address the legacy of the past”.