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Amnesty after Irish Civil War worked

Saturday, 17th May, 2014 3:00pm
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Amnesty after Irish Civil War worked


DE VALERA had more than one ex-gunman as close confidante and minister. One such ‘terrorist’ was Frank Aiken, who as Fianna Fáil’s Minister for External Affairs became an internationally-respected statesman at the United Nations. Nevertheless Unionists never ceased to accuse him of the murder of Protestants in South Armagh during the War of Independence.

Fine Gael also had its ‘ex-terrorists’, such as General Seán McEoin whose ‘execution’ of the ‘Noble Six’ (anti-Treaty prisoners in Sligo) still causes a sense of revulsion. Yet McEoin’s unsavoury past did not impede his advancement up the greasy pole. He held ministries in Justice and Defence.

What is fascinating is that the Free State’s revenge-execution of prisoners between 1922 and 1923, which included the murder of the secretary to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, Erskine Childers, never led to demands that WT Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy and Kevin O’Higgins should face trial.

No retribution was sought. This was because the Free State, in August 1923, passed an Act of Indemnity for its own forces and in late 1924 an Act of General Amnesty for all prisoners, and for all actions committed in the Civil War. It is debateable whether the amnesty was to protect Free State government ministers or was intended to promote a spirit of reconciliation.

Whatever the reason, the amnesty worked. Once the Civil War was over, it was over.

Do well to learn

Indeed, the British government might do well to learn from the way Cosgrave and pals dealt with the loose ends of a civil war.

Because, instead of coping with the historical backwash of the Troubles in a reconciliatory and post-conflict way, the arrest of Gerry Adams was a provocative political act and a manifestation of what is increasingly perceived as British disengagement from the peace process.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers knew Adams was going to be arrested, as did Prime Minister Cameron and, presumably, some of his cabinet.

The readiness to endorse a crudely concocted plan to do as much damage as possible to Sinn Féin as it went into election mode says much about their indifference to the existing impasse in the North.

Which raises this question: if amnesty legislation had been in place to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, would the Adams arrest-debacle have occurred?

After all, if the Free State government in the early 1920s could construct a legal mechanism that was accepted by both sides to deal with the Civil War horrors, how is it that, in the 21st century, the British cannot advance an acceptable legal procedure to address the North’s past?

No prosecutions

Is it that when dealing with Sinn Fein, the Brits lean towards a victor’s justice – one that is defined by an extremist unionist agenda rather than an arrangement based on compromises?

Again, history sets a precedent. In the 1920s, whereas the Free State decided there would be no prosecutions or official retribution for controversial actions in the Civil War, the Six Counties embarked on a different strategy. There was no official amnesty for IRA men, although they quietly were allowed to reintegrate into their communities as long as they kept their heads down.

That tradition has continued. The British, according to David Cameron, do not do amnesties despite the request from the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, for a de facto amnesty. In an interview in The Times, he declared there should be an end to all conflict-related prosecutions, and that the amnesty should pre-date the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

‘It would be madness to attempt to turn over the stones of the Troubles through prosecutions rather than pursue new approaches,’ he argued, warning that arresting people such as Gerry Adams would destabilise the peace process.

He pointed out that if Adams’ detention had happened during the six-month period of negotiations at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, when Sinn Fein was seeking to persuade a sceptical rank and file to sign up to policing, a settlement never would have happened. Gerry Adams, he said, was ‘absolutely crucial to the peace process.’

Hain’s comments followed last year’s recommendation by the North’s attorney general, John Larkin, who believed there should be an end to prosecutions for Troubles-related deaths, even if that meant all deaths caused by paramilitaries, police and Army. His proposal, he said, was a logical consequence of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

To complicate matters, in January, the American sponsored Haass proposals collapsed in the absence of any British government commitment and because of a pig-headed unionist rejection of the proposals. Haass did not advocate an amnesty, but rather an investigations unit ‘to inquire into all past killings.’ Those who provided information – British army, loyalist paramilitaries, IRA – about the killings would have ‘limited immunity,’ whatever that meant.

South African model

Others are of the opinion that only a Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to the one in South Africa could succeed in the North.

After the abolition of apartheid, nineteen public hearings were staged at which victims of torture, false imprisonment and other human rights abuses were invited to give statements about their experiences.

The Commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those from all sides who committed abuses during the apartheid era, ‘as long as the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty.’

Participants included the military wing of the African National Congress.

Interestingly, of the 7,112 amnesty applications, a total of 5,392 were refused and, while the ‘reconciliatory approach’ in dealing with human rights violations was considered ‘effective,’ the process had its critics.

Accusations were made that people lied in an attempt to get an amnesty for their crimes. Others complained the proceedings brought back memories of the past when they had been trying to forget its horrors.

The most damning criticism came from those who contended that ‘justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative’ and that the Commission had been weighed in favour of the perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Trouble ahead

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin asserts that the current impasse besetting the peace process is stemming not only from Cameron’s detachment from the peace process but also from the fact that a loyalist minority has been allowed to influence the political direction of mainstream unionism.

For the past two years, under the guise of a flag controversy the UUP, elements of the DUP and loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the UDA, have been fomenting violent street protest, including attacks on Catholic churches and homes.

The sectarian virus is tolerated by mainstream Unionism and indulgently ignored by Cameron’s government even as the North is about to enter the tinder dry conditions of the marching season. The omens are not good and just now it seems that amnesties are not on people’s minds.