Buried at the Bright Side of the Road


An Attorney General isn’t the kind of figure given to wild-eyed flights of fancy in public.

People appointed to such roles aren’t appointed for their rebellious tendencies, but precisely because they can be relied upon to articulate the position of a substantial portion of the legal establishment.

So the suggestions circulating that John Larkin, the current Attorney General in Northern Ireland, might be going on a solo run with his remarks about ending prosecutions in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict pre-1998, are verging on fantasy.

In reality, the remarks are likely the product of long discussions with other people in Northern Ireland’s legal and political establishments, and informed by an awareness that they would provoke some measure of public outrage.

Northern Ireland’s justice system, like most, wasn’t designed to be popular. Sometimes it falls to someone in a position of authority to articulate an unpopular view in order to rein in public expectations in relation to what the justice system can offer.

Stripped of the exaggeration –prospects of conviction don’t “diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year”- the Attorney General’s remarks do express a real practical difficulty with bringing convictions for offences that happened a long time ago (absent a radical overhaul of political and legal structures, which is as likely as a Northern Ireland Mission to Mars).

The problem is that for people who are victims of Northern Ireland’s violent conflict and who want justice and redress, practicality doesn’t come into it, and local political representatives are mindful of this.

If you look at today’s newspapers you will find reports detailing the responses of victims. There will be a scrupulous distinction in the reporting between people who were victims of Irish Republican violence on the one hand, and people who were victims of British State violence, either in its overt or covert form, on the other.

This distinction points in the direction of the problem: there are different kinds of victim. I don’t mean to suggest that the suffering of someone whose relative was killed by an IRA bomb is qualitatively different from that of someone whose relative was shot by a British soldier. But there are a range of motives, beyond the common basic motives of finding out the truth and seeing some sort of retribution or redress, for people seeking prosecution. These different motives have to do with political orientation vis-à-vis the State, and they take shape as sources of real conflict at the level of political representation.

One example would be someone who thinks their RUC officer relative was engaged in legitimate defence of public order and safety. To end the possibility of prosecution for his killers would mean an indication, from the State he died defending, that he died for nothing, and that the distinction between legitimate State violence and criminal terrorist violence had collapsed into nothing.

Another example would be someone whose relative was shot dead by the British Army and who wants the British State to recognise –to the point that it is prepared to prosecute perpetrators- that the structural injustice that led to their relative’s death in the first instance is being removed.

Reported in today’s Irish Times, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister used a striking analogy to express his perspective:

“Mr Larkin is not advocating amnesty for everyone, only for ‘trouble-related’ crimes; thereby endorsing the terrorist propaganda,” he said. “Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date. It didn’t have for the Nazis, who have still been pursued. Northern Ireland’s criminals must equally never be relieved of the threat of the long arm of the law catching up with them.”

For Jim Allister QC, the Nazis are the ultimate embodiment of evil, and they serve as a reference point to indicate the moral standards of Irish republican groups, and, by extension, the good embodied by British State forces. For Allister, murder is murder and terrorism is terrorism.

But only up to a point. Allister cites the existence of a hierarchy of victims in Northern Ireland. With the release of the Da Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane, Allister said his thoughts were ‘with the thousands of victims who will never have any report’ and pointed to ‘the much greater desire to uncover the truth surrounding some cases than others’.

The problem here for Allister (well, it isn’t a problem for him, but it ought to be for anyone who doesn’t wish to live in a fascist State) is that the victims of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces are the victims of precisely the same long arm of the law that Allister so stoutly defends .

What is more, the overwhelming majority of murders perpetrated by Nazis were conducted by forces that laid claim to legal jurisdiction over the territories in which they were operating. Hence the victims of Nazism were also victims of the long arm of the law.

It’s difficult, to say the least, to imagine a new reign of justice in Northern Ireland, in which two diametrically opposing positions –on the one hand, that prior to 1998, the British State had –and has– a legitimate monopoly of the use of physical force, and, on the other, that the British State engineers the murder of its citizens whenever the need arises- can be conclusively reconciled.

How, then, can the post-Good Friday Agreement institutions take proper root if there is a continuous trickle of events that serve, in the context of intensified austerity and privatisation, to undermine whatever legitimacy they do have?

What is more: if, as Anne Cadwallader’s new book shows, collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British State forces was endemic, in what light should we view the loyalist butchery of the early 90s? Did it tilt proceedings in the direction of a ceasefire? How did it serve to determine the scope of what emerged from that ceasefire in terms of political institutions? To put it bluntly: was the Good Friday Agreement built atop the corpses of innocent victims of British State violence?

One way of overcoming this contradiction, these suspicions –in case they jeopardise ruling elites’ visions for a Northern Ireland economic model based on call centres, white elephant tourist attractions, public private partnerships, corporation tax autonomy and property speculation –and remember, all these areas need a properly functioning legal infrastructure!- is simply to wipe the slate clean, and forget about the whole thing.

The unstated logic behind such an approach is that different kinds of victim might object for different reasons, but they’ll shut up eventually, and many of them will be dead soon too. The past will become an embarrassment, and so will they:  a drain on legal and emotional resources in an era when what is needed is not MOPEry but maturity.

For political representatives occupying government, a few victims can come in quite handy when you’re in a tight spot, as Enda Kenny will attest. But as a comprehensive political problem, they can be a seething mass of annoyance.

Overcoming the contradiction would consist of drawing an official line in the sand, such that the pre-GFA period becomes the Dark End of The Street that we don’t talk about any more, and the post-1998, post-GFA order becomes the Bright Side of the Road.

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