Two days ago, the trial of two former paratroopers collapsed. The men, known as Solider A and Soldier C were acquitted of the murder of Joe McCann, an Official IRA commander, in 1972. The Times report: ‘The trial collapsed at Laganside court in Belfast after the prosecution confirmed they would not be appealing against a ruling by the judge that previous evidence was inadmissible.’
As with anything related to Northern Ireland, it is hard to disentangle the sectarian from the political and whether either are driving matters. As you would expect, family members of Joe McCann are keen to see prosecutions, as are many Republicans, whilst those in the British armed forces see such prosecutions as an attack on those called to serve their country. As you would equally imagine, Unionists tend to line up behind the armed forces on this question and not many have a lot of sympathy with a man who was a known IRA commander. In the meantime, truth and justice tend to take a backseat.
There are several inconsistencies that exist on these questions. Let me (briefly) outline some of them.
Amnesties vs calls for justice
One of the reasons the DUP and Sinn Fein managed to become the largest parties for their respective communities was the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA was orchestrated by the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein painted the GFA as a complete sell out of their respective communities and positioned themselves as more authentically Unionist and Republican respectively than their counterparts. The DUP argued that prisoner releases were immoral and unjust whilst Sinn Fein argued that the GFA effectively meant they were admitting defeat in their aim to unite all 32 counties on the island of Ireland.
Of course, since then, the DUP have called for historic prosecutions against soldiers to be dropped whilst Sinn Fein have consistently sought to bury historic investigations into the activities of IRA members. Both makes calls for justice against their opponents whilst seeking amnesties, in effect, for those with whom they sympathise (which, of course, leaves Loyalists out in the cold as nobody outside the Loyalist paramilitaries themselves ever publicly supported them and their activities). But consistency would demand either a focus on truth and justice or an acceptance of amnesties. Either there should be a push for historic prosecutions of both British soliders and paramilitary men accused of criminal activity or there needs to be a blanket agreement that all such activities, on all sides, up to 1998 will no longer be prosecuted.
Long war vs civilian justice
One of the specific inconsistencies of the IRA is their continual claims that they were in a proper war and that the rules of warfare should apply to their activities whilst simultaneously claiming that the actions of British soldiers were effectively done against civilians. Of course, in warfare, there are rules governing how soldiers should interact with non-combatants. No doubt, if the war reasoning is accepted, there are still rules surrounding how combatants engage those not involved. However, as in war, things are complicated as whole communities get embroiled.
Nonetheless, whilst such reasoning may mean that soldiers need to answer a case regarding non-combatant civilians, Sinn Fein cannot simultaneously argue for a war situation, on the one hand, and yet seek prosecution of British soldiers who have shot IRA commanders. Either it is a war situation in which combatants will get shot on all sides – as the Sinn Fein/IRA love to insist when they shoot soldiers, police and even civilians who are deemed collateral damage – whilst seeking the prosecution of actual soldiers on the grounds that the situation wasn’t as war-like as they insist. If the situation really is the war they want to insist it is, even covert operations to assassinate army commanders must be an unfortunate, but acceptable, reality of the situation. All the more so when the operations were not covert, but were a response to armed attacks against them. Either the situation is a war, with all that entails, or it is not.
Active service vs proscribed activity
There is one difference that is validly pointed out. The British Army were sent into Northern Ireland by the UK government. They were a legitimate force deployed in the region. It is often forgotten that the British Armed Forces were sent into Northern Ireland in response to Loyalist murders perpetrated against the Catholic community. That is, the Army were sent to defend against Loyalist attacks. By contrast, the IRA were an illegal organisation, deployed by an illegitimate army council for the purposes of forcing their political will on the region despite no democratic mandate for it. There is a case, therefore, for prosecution of anybody involved in IRA activities of any sort which does not exist for British Army soldiers. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for amnesties for IRA members (and Loyalist paramilitary men) who were not directly involved in acts of murder. However, despite being a legitimate armed force, the British Army still have standards that necessarily ought to be maintained. Being in the army does not give you a license to kill whomever you will however you please.
However, whatever lines historic prosecutions are to take, there needs to be a level playing field for servicemen, Republican terrorists and Loyalist ones. If blanket amnesties are to be offered to IRA men, they need to equally apply to British servicemen and Loyalist paramilitaries too. If there are to be boundaries to those amnesties i.e. active murders or large scale bombings that led to loss of life are not to be included, then the same must apply to all parties. That is, where the British army have killed in cold blood, they must be prosecuted along with the paramilitary men who have done the same. If paramilitary men are to get a pass on such things, British soldiers cannot reasonably be dragged through courts on the same grounds.