17 January 2006

State-sponsored violence must be exposed

Daily Ireland

Patricia McKenna
17/01/2006

The proposed legislation that would have allowed people currently classified as “on-the-runs” to return to Northern Ireland without having to serve time in prison for offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement has been scrapped. The decision has be warmly welcomed by all political parties as well as by human-rights and victim support groups.
While opposition to the legislation came from all sides, the reasons against it were varied. British criticism of the legislation focused solely on the possibility that the legislation would grant an amnesty to terrorist suspects. Their criticism didn’t stretch to the fact that the proposal covered all members of the British security forces involved in state killings or in collusion with loyalist paramilitary groups.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy condemned what he called his government’s plans to allow terrorist suspects to return to Northern Ireland and walk free after facing a special tribunal. He said: “There are serious problems with a scheme which doesn’t even require an accused person to appear in court. What does that say about our attitude to justice and what kind of signal does that send to their victims?” But what kind of signal is Britain sending out to its own citizens and to the international community if it allows state-sponsored crimes to go unchecked?
It is essential that soldiers and other members of the security forces who killed people be held accountable and that those higher up who either had knowledge of or ordered the killings be exposed. The question of whether they ever go to prison or are punished for their crimes is not the priority. Exposure of the truth must take precedence.
It is interesting to note that, while there was international involvement in the negotiations on the peace process itself and issues surrounding it, such as policing reform, prisoner releases and decommissioning, there was no international involvement in the drafting of this legislation and no provision for any such involvement in its enactment. Perhaps because international figures would have taken a dim view of provisions allowing state-sponsored crime off the hook, they were kept out of such negotiations.
It is clear that the principal beneficiary of the legislation proposed by the British government would have been the British state itself. The British drew up the legislation and tried to push it through their parliament.
Victims’ groups had already listed a number of concerns, including the lack of provision for the involvement of relatives and the fact that decisions on what if any information should be provided to families would be discretionary.
They also raised concerns about the role of the secretary of state, the power he would have, and the possibility that the process would be open to political interference.
This scepticism is clearly justified for, even without the legislation, it is difficult to get answers. For example, at the Barron inquiry, the Northern secretary withheld documents and refused to give evidence to the inquiry. As Margaret Irwin of Justice for the Forgotten said: “How can we trust a process totally determined by the Northern secretary and the NIO? It’s not rocket science to figure out that the NIO will use the ‘national security’ clause to close down anything that might embarrass them on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.”
Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry was right when he said: “This legislation is a dream come true for the spooks at Vauxhall Bridge [MI5 headquarters].
“Had this legislation been in place in 1992, the secretary of state could have withheld the name of Brian Nelson, directed that the RUC, FRU [Force Research Unit] and MI5 withhold evidence from the prosecution and withheld all information regarding charges and eventual prosecution from the Finucane family. The NIO cannot be allowed to determine this process. It is part of the problem.”
While the SDLP and Sinn Féin criticised the inclusion of security force personnel in the legislation, Mr Hain defended their inclusion and said it would not only be illogical but indefensible to exclude them. How can Mr Hain defend the right of the British state to conceal the truth about its involvement in the killing of citizens? Does he want the British government to be included on George W Bush’s list of “terrorist” and “rogue” states? We are talking here about state-sponsored murders — state agents paid by the public being allowed to murder them and get away with it. All civilised and responsible governments have a duty under international law to uphold the rule of law and to stay within it. The rule of law is non-negotiable. We cannot allow for exceptions.
Apparently, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, on a BBC programme in November, dismissed concerns and said he did “not envisage that any people who were involved in the murders of nationalists… is ever going to be brought before a court in this day and age”.
To adopt such a defeatist attitude is a mistake and will give the British government the signal it needs to allow state violence off the hook.
Sinn Féin’s desire to get its own people back has clouded its judgment. Its initial support for the legislation appears to have been hasty and ill-advised. The party should have checked the small print first.
There are believed to be between 20 and 30 on-the-runs, living mainly in the Republic. Should their interests be put above the interests of all those who lost loved ones at the hands of the security forces? Killings such as those of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson or bombings such as in Dublin in 1972 and Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 are crimes that, because of the suspicion of British state involvement, cannot be left unresolved. We have an opportunity, through the peace process, to deal with the past in a truthful way and it should not be squandered. Relatives have a right to know the truth regardless of how much it may embarrass the British government.
There is a difference between terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. Terrorists are exactly that — terrorists. They don’t respect any law. But agents of the state paid for by the people are supposed to operate within the law. That’s what democracy is all about.
For the victims of violence, whether it was perpetrated by the IRA, Ulster Volunteer Force, security forces, it makes little different to their grief and suffering. Nothing will bring their loved ones back.
But for governments and the political establishment, it is essential to expose and root out state violence because failure to do so will ensure that the state and organs of the state never achieve public confidence and support.
Patricia McKenna is a former Green Party MEP for Dublin. She is an active campaigner on a range of issues from justice to human rights to the environment and food safety.

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