No-one cares about Northern Ireland. No-one, bar its inhabitants, ever really has. Not the British Government which washed its hands of the province 100 years ago, leaving it to Stormont’s tender care. Not Britain’s political parties, declining to offer their political vision to its voters. Not United Kingdom voters who ignored Brexit’s consequences for its peace settlement. Not the current Prime Minister who signed up to a Protocol he either did not understand or had no intention of keeping. Not the EU either – willing to ignore its delicate political balance in order to pursue its vendetta against a vaccine manufacturer and its main client. The Irish government cares, of course, or says it does – but this is rather in the manner that a person with a persistent stabbing pain will say that he cares about that pain. And a few politicians – here and in the US – care because it makes them look good or because they need votes. But it is largely unloved, the unwanted child left out in the cold stubbornly refusing to die.
So it is understandable that there is a weary response to the coroner’s finding in the inquests into the killings of 10 innocent civilians in August 1971 in Ballymurphy by members of the Paras during Operation Demetrius, the government’s attempt to arrest IRA members en masse. The soldiers’ behaviour was wrong. What else can possibly be said?
Well, there is quite a lot more to say. The Paras involved in the Ballymurphy massacre were also involved in Bloody Sunday in January 1972. Why after what happened at Ballymurphy did the authorities think it sensible to use the same troops to police a civil rights march protesting against internment?
A historic question you say. Well then. How about this? Since 2010 when Mr Justice Savile reported on Bloody Sunday after an inquiry lasting 12 years, the government has officially known that those troops murdered innocent civilians, lied about what they did and that the military and other authorities covered up what happened.
Why then did it take a further 11 years for the truth to come out about Ballymurphy? Did no-one ask questions or spot the connection or think that it might be a good thing to give these families the truth rather than it being drawn out of a reluctant foot-dragging state, as usual?
Another thing that might be said is this: those families only got some form of justice – eventually – because they – through the courts – were able to challenge the authorities. This government has made it one of its legislative priorities this year to make such challenges harder, if not impossible. Not easier. Clearly that must be what they are gagging for in the North – absolutely essential to the “levelling up” agenda we hear so much about but see so little of in practice. (The Hillsborough families might beg to differ.)
We might also say this: a Tory MP, Johnny Mercer, has been very vocal in wanting this government to – in effect – impose a statute of limitations on murder, whether by soldiers or the IRA or Loyalist paramilitaries. Apparently this has been promised. He fears it will not be, thinks it unjust to investigate soldiers after such a long period and is willing to accept that terrorists too should benefit from this forgiving approach. He might have more of a point if it had not been the actions of the soldiers, the army and the state itself which meant that the truth has been withheld for so long. The same can be said of the IRA – see the heartbreakingly cruel case of Jean McConville. His argument is that of the man convicted of killing his parents pleading for clemency because he is an orphan.
It is a strange world – sickening some might think – when Tories want a policy effectively absolving murderers of their crimes, implicitly accepting the IRA view that this was a war in which both sides were combatants and that nothing better is to be expected of the state’s soldiers. There was a time when Conservative governments legislated (the 1991 War Crimes Act) to ensure that British courts could prosecute people who were not British citizens for murders committed abroad decades ago of people who were not British citizens. Now Conservatives want to stop the investigation – let alone prosecution – of alleged crimes committed by British citizens against other British citizens on British soil barely 23 years or more ago.
It is particularly sickening when one remembers that violence is happening now in Northern Ireland and that the government has largely ignored it – speed of reaction being necessary in response to possible football leagues but not attempted terror attacks on policewomen and their small children – possibly because this might raise uncomfortable questions about the government’s responsibility for the recent increased tensions in Northern Ireland.
Truth and Reconciliation is what is wanted, apparently. Will the government really want to tell the truth about its actions, however expedient or necessary they may have been during a vicious civil war, the actions of the RUC, its collaboration with Protestant terrorists, its agents within the IRA? Will the army? Will the IRA? Or Sinn Fein? Or the DUP? So what reconciliation can there really be? What justice? Surely it just wants to gently brush all this unpleasant history, regrettable actions and clanking skeletons into a firmly locked cupboard never to be heard of again? Much as it will want to do with what may have been done in Iraq and elsewhere. Or what might be done in future by its agents – see the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021.
There is plenty to be said, plenty to be learnt, plenty for families to find out about what happened to their loved ones. But it won’t be. Meanwhile those who care about the place will hope that such forgetting will lead to reconciliation of a sort, that the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” will not emerge once again, as the PM’s hero Churchill once feared. Given Northern Ireland’s history, who would bet on that?