What do we do when justice fails?

The 2006 St Andrews Agreement has always been something of a tentative conclusion to the problems in Northern Ireland. Voting remains as polarised as ever – Protestants still overwhelmingly vote Unionist; Catholics still predominantly vote Republican – with the Ulster Unionists and SDLP continuing to play second fiddle to those parties once deemed (perhaps unfairly) more “radical” but certainly more virulently disposed to the aims and desires of their respective communities. The DUP, over the last 30 years, stood on a platform of being more Unionist than the Ulster Unionists and more robust in their rejection of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) to great effect. Likewise, Sinn Fein have positioned themselves as greener than the SDLP. That the DUP and Sinn Fein are the majority parties within their respective communities speaks to the nature of voting cleavages in the region and the primary concerns of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.

Given all that, what are we to make of the recent revelations that secret backdoor deals, including immunity, had been given to terror suspects? Unsurprisingly, such revelations are now threatening to tear apart the already fragile St Andrews Agreement. Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland, is threatening to resign unless there is a full judicial review into what went on. David Trimble, former Ulster Unionist leader who was central in the formation of the GFA, has stated he was unaware of such deals and reiterated that no such provision was made in the GFA to grant immunity to terror suspects. In particular, the St Andrews Agreement marked the desire of Sinn Fein to submit to the rule of law and specifically the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The recent revelations of backdoor deals rather undermines the very agreement that led to power sharing in the first instance.

Sadly, this was all rather too predictable (indeed, I commented to that effect as an undergraduate student just prior to the signing of the St. Andrews Agreement). The central flaws in the power sharing arrangement were threefold: (1) The Arend Lijphart consociationalist model for Power Sharing giving the minority side a veto on any “petition of concern”; (2) As Col. Tim Collins argues, “the Good Friday Agreement was in fact a “peace at any price” deal where a militarily defeated IRA and the chaotic so-called loyalist paramilitaries were given the working-class populations of their respective communities as a blood dowry, to do with as they pleased in exchange for keeping the violence off the TV screens. The knee-cappings and beatings carried on out of sight. Only once – the brutal murder of Robert McCartney in 2005 – did the mask slip, but this was quickly covered up.” St Andrews never dealt with this underlying and ongoing issue; (3) The DUP rampant rejection of the GFA was based on several factors, but one central issue was early prisoner releases. St Andrews never addressed this issue and these recent revelations were bound to reopen this old wound.

What hope of justice exists for the families of the victims of those who have been given immunity? Sadly, at the present time, not much. Unless a judicial review determines the letters granting immunity to be void (and one finds it difficult to see how they could do) terror suspects of historic crimes will remain immune. All the while, I think Tim Collins is right to feel aggrieved that “the Hyde Park murders, we are told by [Peter] Hain and others, are so far back in time that it is an outrage that anyone should be held to account. Yet he would be the first to bay for the prosecution of any soldier even vaguely associated with the event of Bloody Sunday, 10 years earlier in 1972”. In the end, justice at the present time seems unlikely to be forthcoming. Expensive enquiries into the historic actions of state service men and women continue whilst equal energy is put into covering up the historic actions of terror suspects (on both sides). 

Nevertheless, none of us will escape the justice of the Lord. Whether British service men and women, Loyalist or Republican terrorist, the Lord sees all and knows what each has done. He will hold to account. For the Christian, though we may often feel like David in Psalm 73, we know that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement (Heb 9:27)”. Likewise, “it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pet 4:17)”

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