Northern Ireland’s Haunted Peace

As exemplified in the Great Famine, Ireland historically suffered at the hands of the British but now British forces are being investigated over the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972. If anything, the spectre of the past still haunts ex-servicemen. ***PIIA condemns the attacks in Paris today.

We in the east look to Britain as a champion of human rights yet the Cameron government considers the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) as a “farce” and wants to “scrap” this fine legal instrument which empowers British courts to give effect to the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but does not bind the domestic courts to the Strasbourg jurisprudence.

However, a “blueprint” of the British Bill of Rights, which seeks to replace the HRA, leaked to the press articulates plans to override “slavishly” following the Strasbourg Court and instead champions the common law and Commonwealth jurisprudence. In relation to Northern Ireland and the UK’s long war against republican terrorism, the Good Friday Agreement marked “a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning”. It heralded “a fresh start” and the ECHR is woven into its fabric; the historic accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland ultimately rests on the wider idea of human rights, which is under serious threat from the present Conservative government.

The Good Friday Agreement acknowledges that the majority of Northern Ireland’s population wished to remain a part of the UK but also concedes that a substantial part of Northern Ireland’s population, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wanted to see a united Ireland. Both positions are legitimate; the imaginative long-run solution was to agree that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until a majority of both the populations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise and if so then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice. Yet, some like Professor Philippe Sands QC are predicting that the:

British bill of rights could end the UK.

Because of the deteriorating political environment, the UK Government was increasingly concerned that the Northern Ireland’s Stormont Government had lost control and direct rule from Westminster was introduced from 30 March 1972. Hell broke loose in Northern Ireland thereafter and Tony Blair’s Labour government was able to successfully broker a workable peace deal which restored some normality to Northern Ireland. Therefore, the equilibrium created by the Good Friday Agreement is probably best left undisturbed because peace in Northern Ireland is underpinned by “safeguards” enshrined in human rights law and fiddling with these delicate arrangements is likely to reopen a can of worms that is best left buried in history – it would be quite painful to reopen these old war wounds and even now, memories of the bloody conflict are still fresh for unionists and republicans alike.

For example, the recent arrest of Lance Corporal “J” (who Lord Saville’s Inquiry in 2010 said had “lied” because he shot first) paradigmatically exposes the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland. On Bloody Sunday or 30 January 1972, along with 20 other soldiers who discharged 108 rounds in 30 minutes, Lance Corporal “J” opened fire on a civil rights march into Derry’s Bogside when British paratroopers ran amok killing 14 unarmed protesters. We touch on these issues below. Lord Saville took 12 years to finish his inquiry, he interviewed 931 people and by some estimates it cost up to £400 million.

The coroner who conducted the 1973 inquest into the killings, Major Hubert O’Neill, simply said: “they were shooting innocent people … I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder.” Yet the military personnel involved in the massacre reasoned that the IRA had “completely infiltrated” the crowd, threw nail bombs at soldiers and had also stationed snipers on rooftops. However, overruling Lord Widgery’s “whitewash” inquiry (1972) exonerating the army, Lord Saville concluded that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. Retaliating to the fatalities, former IRA members allegedly present at the historic scene such as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness (“adjutant” to the IRA’s Derry brigade, pictured below) may have returned fire with their Thompson sub-machine guns but only after British paratroopers embarked on their killing spree. Rather than being related to vengeance, forty four years on, although divided, opinion in relation to the killings remains connected to the truth being aired and wrong doing being acknowledged by those who pulled the trigger.

Although lawyers for seven other paratroopers (B, N, O, Q, R, U and V) are seeking a judicial review of the way police detectives are conducting their historical inquiry, family members of those killed explain that they “have been looking forward to this for nearly 44 years” because “no soldiers have ever been arrested before now.” On the other hand, Betty Walker, whose brother Michael McDaid (20) was shot dead on the day (for which “J” was questioned), does not want ex-servicemen responsible for the fatalities to be imprisoned if charged and found guilty so long as they “accept” they have “done wrong and apologise”. Although Michael McDaid’s other sister Bridget Gallagher wants J charged and found guilty, she stressed:

I want to see him named and shamed. That is more important than going to jail. I would like to think he would apologise out of conscience.

Equally, J was also questioned on suspicion of murdering William Nash (19) and John Young (17) and the attempted murder of Nash’s father Alexander, who was shot while tried to help him. Although he could not precisely pinpoint whose gun killed which victim, Lord Saville found that McDaid, Nash and Young were all unarmed and had been shot dead by J or one of two other soldiers known only as “E” and “P” led by Major Ted Loden. John Young’s sister Maura Young said her brother was an entirely non-violent individual who loved the Beatles. “Just tell the world that my brother was not a gunman,” she remonstrated pointing out her preference to see the paratroopers jailed if found guilty but she also said:

The main justice is the arrest and the prosecution. After that, whatever will be will be.

Recently, the UK Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Terence Gerard McGeough’s appeal and held that information in an asylum application is admissible as evidence in a criminal trial. The case was highly controversial because on 13 June 1981 McGeough was badly injured in an attack he mounted on the instructions of the IRA, along with another republican militant, in County Tyrone against Samuel Brush – a postman and also a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Expecting an attack on his life, Brush had been wearing a bulletproof vest. He also had a Smith and Wesson revolver for personal protection. Despite being hit by several bullets, Brush returned fire and injured McGeough who needed to have a .38 bullet surgically removed from his body. The UK Supreme Court ruling did not have an impact on his sentence or conviction and was related to the overall issue of disclosure.

McGeough was extradited to the United States in 1992 where he pleaded guilty and served a two-year sentence for moving weapons (including surface-to-air-missiles, heavy machine guns and Semtex from Libya) between states without a licence. Prior to that law enforcement authorities arrested McGeough in August 1988 while crossing the Dutch-German border with two AK47 rifles in his car; he was charged with attacks on the British Army of the Rhine for which he served four years in Germany in a special detention facility but his trial was superseded by events because he was extradited to the US.

Against that history, McGeough was deported from America to Ireland in 1996. The police in Northern Ireland soon became aware that he was resident there. He qualified as a teacher after studying in Dublin and accepted that during the period May 1996-July 2000 he would have expected to have been arrested in Northern Ireland. He claimed that following a conversation in 2000 with a Sinn Féin member called Gerry Kelly, who had been involved during peace negotiations in discussions about the liability of those who had committed past terrorist acts, he understood he would not be prosecuted for past crimes.

In relation to the liability of “on the runs” to arrest in relation to past crimes, McGeough said that the issue had been discussed in the context of the peace process and he contended that Kelly suggested that he provide him with his name and address to be included in a list of such persons to be submitted on behalf of Sinn Féin.

Three decades later on 18 February 2011, at Belfast Crown Court Stephens J convicted McGeough of attempted murder, possession of firearms with intent to commit an indictable offence, and two counts of membership of the IRA (a proscribed organisation) from 1 January 1975 until 14 June 1981. McGeough was sentenced to a 20-year prison term but served less than two years under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement 1998, he was released in January 2013.

Of course, the ex-servicemen under investigation and their family members are unlikely cheerleaders for the Good Friday Agreement as it allows republicans with shady pasts like McGeough to walk free whereas former soldiers – “caught up in a dirty war” – acting under orders to quell public unrest are left in an invidious position. Former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Mandelson has warned of the “perils” of dwelling on the past and politicians and top military brass want to know why ex-servicemen are under attack while terrorists are being pardoned. Equally, another former Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, has called for an amnesty for the ex-servicemen but of course victims’ family members understandably want to know the identities of the men who killed their relatives. However, anonymity of the shooters aside, other types of ambiguity haunts the situation as it remains to be seen whether or not any soldier convicted of killing protesters would benefit (like McGeough) from the two-year limit on prison sentences for Troubles related terror offences brokered under the Good Friday Agreement. On the face of it, the amnesty granted to “on the runs” would not apply to army personnel guilty of causing the Bloody Sunday fatalities.

Indeed, as the cowardly attacks in France today have shown, with terrorism and militancy rising at an exponential rate all across the world, nothing could be more shortsighted for the UK than undermining the delicate balance of peace in Northern Ireland. Shaking the foundations of peace/human rights for personal gain and political mileage, the path chosen by the present government, seems to set a rather poor example for inspiring future peace agreements elsewhere in our crazy war-torn world. Therefore some academics such as Professor Philippe Sands QC unsurprisingly argue that apart from undermining Scottish and Welsh devolution arrangements, repealing the HRA “would drive a coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement because it:

guarantees that Britain will incorporate the European Convention into Northern Ireland’s law.

He also predicts that the “British bill of rights could end the UK”. History shows that the wounds of war are slow to heal and ancient enmities die hard, but Europe is a great example of the triumph of democracy and human rights in the aftermath of annihilation, extermination and genocide. Having served on “the last government’s ill-fated commission on a bill of rights”, Professor Sands is frustrated that the Tories are unable to articulate the British bill’s provisions and cannot even agree on what the so-called bill of rights would contain? He maintains that “the commission found literally no one who had any objection to the current arrangements” and is equally shocked that the Tories are also totally clueless about how the British bill would work and interact with the ECHR?

These key questions remain unresolved and Sands is at pains to point out “there is now considerable evidence that judgments in the UK courts influence decisions taken in Strasbourg”; rightly, he is keen to emphasise that the relationship with Strasbourg is not a one-way street.

Since withdrawal from the ECHR is now on the agenda, Sands is eager for people not to be blindsided by irresponsible press propaganda. Coincidentally on the same day this judgment was handed down by the Supreme Court, he exhorted the public “that the government is playing a dangerous game” the consequences of which will have serious effects on international law, domestic freedoms and “Britain’s engagement with Europe”.

“Such an approach would be calamitous if you care about maintaining the union,” laments the acclaimed international law academic in expressing fear over what is likely to be quite a grim future.

Professor Sands is therefore rather agitated by anecdotes trumpeted by the government in its campaign to create the false impression that the changes produced by the bill will address “important” issues such as ensuring that foreign criminals can “be more easily deported from Britain” and making the Supreme Court the “ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK” – which as its name implies is in any event supreme.

Notably, Sammy Brush served as councillor for Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, Blackwater Ward from 2005-2015 for the Democratic Unionist Party (the only major political party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement) and had also held similar political office (albeit under different political colours) from 1981-1993. Moreover, when the investigation against McGeough was reopened in February 2007, he was contesting an assembly seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as an independent republican against Sinn Féin. He lost the election and was arrested on 8 March 2007 as he left the election count and was charged with attempted murder and possession of firearms. Even decades after their gunfight in Ballygawley, both men are still active in order to make their political messages (which may have varied over time) heard and seem to have a hard time letting go of the past.

Posted by Editor.

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Filed under Bloody Sunday, Courts, Disarmament, Discussion, Europe, Human Rights, IRA, Pakistan Horizon, Politics

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