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The Troubles cast a shadow over Brexit
December 2018 / January 2019


Prosecuting Hutchings is a “national disgrace” tweeted Tory MP and former soldier Johnny Mercer. “Dennis Hutchings . . . is an old man,” says the former head of the army Lord Dannatt. “He should be allowed to have his old age.” So outraged by this “unprecedented betrayal of our fighting men” is former Colonel Richard Kemp, who did eight tours of duty of Ulster, “that I am returning the hard-won Commission awarded to me by the Queen that I have prized for 40 years”.

I doubt Messrs Dannatt, Mercer and Kemp will be arguing in favour of giving 66-year-old John Downey his old age. In November the ex-IRA man was charged with the murder of two soldiers in 1972. In 2014, he was also charged with the murder of four members of the Household Cavalry killed by a nail bomb which tore through them and their horses during the Changing of the Guard in 1982. But Downey’s trial collapsed after it emerged that in 2007 he had received one of 200 letters sent to IRA suspects on the run confirming they were not currently wanted even though 95 were linked to some 295 killings. These “comfort” letters followed private assurances to Gerry Adams from Tony Blair, who later explained they were key to ensuring the IRA fully decommissioned their weapons.

Former London car bomber Gerry Kelly, now a prominent Sinn Fein politician, says Downey’s latest arrest is “an act of gross bad faith by the British government”. For most people in Britain, and indeed Ireland, Mr Kelly’s outrage will attract much less sympathy than the outrage by veterans and MPs over the arrest of Dennis Hutchings, because whatever crimes soldiers may have committed, people will struggle to see the remotest moral equivalence between the British Army and the IRA.

Thanks to the Irish “embuggerment” factor, however, when it comes to the legacy minefield it’s just not that simple, at least not if we want Northern Ireland to move on by looking to the future instead of where it is, still stuck fast in the past.

I fear this article may not earn me many friends among Standpoint readers. But let me try to set out some of the realities, however uncomfortable they may be for those who think that, because soldiers were lawfully on the streets with guns, that relatives of those killed by the army should not be afforded the same legacy voice as those killed by the IRA.

A total of 301 people were killed by the British Army, over half of them between 1970 and 1973. The salutary fact is that the army’s biggest single group of victims were not terrorists, but civilians, the vast majority republicans or nationalists. During this period, a little-known Royal Ulster Constabulary force order was in place. The GOC and the Chief Constable had privately agreed that interviews of soldiers involved in killings, disputed or otherwise, would be conducted, not by the CID, but by the Royal Military Police. Many RMP interviews were a “managerial” formality, rather than an investigation, with statements running to just a few lines. This cosy arrangement only ended at the insistence of the Northern Ireland DPP in late 1973. When the Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Lord Lowry heard about it, he wasn’t too impressed either: “We deprecate this curtailment of the functions of the police and hope that the practice will not be revived.” It wasn’t — but neither were the 150-plus “investigations” reviewed. Widows, sons and daughters have been in limbo ever since.
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Pat
December 6th, 2018
11:12 PM
In reply to nobby, who states 'you cannot compare a soldier who made a mistake in the heat of the moment......' my father was shot dead in cold blood by members of the MRF, a unit of the British Army who drove around Belfast in plain clothes in unmarked cars 'executing' civilians. Eventually this unit were disbanded as they were deemed to be 'out of control'. Obviously we expect these soldiers to be tried for the murder of our Dad. And why not? Wouldn't you want to see justice done if you were in our position?

John Ware
December 6th, 2018
7:12 PM
Nobby: The (regular) army killed 160 civilians, and 121 republican terrorists (Table 18, p 1561, Lost Lives). Most of those civilians were shot in the early and most violent phase of the conflict, and many may well have died in cross fire (including, I suspect, some of the 11 shot in Ballymurphy at the start of internment in August 1971). I trust you noticed my comment that ".....whatever crimes soldiers may have committed, people will struggle to see the remotest moral equivalence between the British Army and the IRA." John Ware

nobby
December 6th, 2018
10:12 AM
on the whole I agree with the solution to the legacy of unsolved killings put forward in this article.However there are a few points I would make.Firstly the author gives the impression that a large majority of the British Armys victims were civilians.In fact the army killed 149 terrorists and 152 civilians,roughly 50-50.Secondly you cannot compare a soldier who makes a mistake in the heat of the moment with a terrorist who carries out a pre planned cold bloded murder.Look at the Kingsmill massacre where the IRA stopped a minibus carrying workers home from a building site,seperated the protestants from the Catholic,whose name they knew,and then shot the Protestants.Nobody has ever been prosecuted for that either.I would be interested to know what proportion of Terrorist murders were successfully prosecuted,I suspect it is not as high as this article gives the impression of.Finally how can it be just to prosecute an old soldier who made one terrible mistake 40 years ago when the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin Mcguiness were/are allowed to pose as respectable elder statesmen.

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