The Guardian view on the Troubles legacy row: no solution at all

Show caption The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, plans to impose a statute of limitations on all prosecutions, legacy inquests and civil actions for Troubles-related killings. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Opinion The Guardian view on the Troubles legacy row: no solution at all Editorial The British government has managed to unite Northern Ireland against its amnesty plan. A different approach is needed Thu 15 Jul 2021 19.17 BST Share on Facebook

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Long and bitter experience taught an earlier generation of British governments that the only sure route to political success in Northern Ireland lies in patiently bringing the different traditions and parties together in an agreement. This week Boris Johnson’s government has unveiled a novel variation on this tried and tested principle. It has managed the always tricky task of bringing the different traditions and parties together. But it has done so by uniting them all in disagreement – not agreement – with what the Conservatives are trying to do.

More than 3,500 people were killed and nearly 40,000 injured during the 30 years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Most were killed by republican terrorists, many others by loyalist terror groups and the security forces, including the British army. Many cases remain unexplained, their perpetrators still unpunished and even unidentified, an outcome that has left families in torment for decades and ensured fertile soil for enduring bitterness and anger. In spite of many efforts, no forum or formula for dealing justly with these “legacy” issues has ever been satisfactorily produced in the 23 years since the Good Friday agreement.

The latest attempt was announced by the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, this week. His plan is to impose a statute of limitations on all prosecutions, legacy inquests and civil actions for Troubles-related killings and other crimes by all sides. By ruling out the use of the courts, Mr Lewis seeks to clear the ground for a new “truth recovery” effort on behalf of victims’ families and for investment in a major oral history initiative rooted in the lived experiences of all sides in the period. The plans are detailed in a 32-page consultative document. A bill is expected in the autumn.

The new plan may already be dead in the water. It has been condemned by all the political parties in Northern Ireland. There are three connected reasons. The most important is that families and parties in the two communities remain rightly committed to their basic right to legal justice for past crimes. The second is that neither community is prepared to accept what is, in effect, an across-the-board amnesty covering everyone from Provisional IRA bombers to the British army. The third is that there is no guarantee that the truth recovery part of the process will deliver the hard facts that victims’ families demand, especially when it has been established in this way.

The underlying problem is that Mr Lewis’s plan has been brought forward unilaterally. It has been announced to please Conservative backbenchers and the Daily Mail, who want an end to inquiries into and prosecutions of British troops. It is not the fulfilment of a wider and balanced consultative exercise about all legacy issues. It is more concerned with getting good headlines in the English tabloids than in trying to solve a complex and difficult Irish problem. It remains possible that a better consultative process of the kind to which the UK and Irish governments committed themselves in Dublin last month will produce a more serious solution in the coming weeks. But Mr Lewis’s plan has needlessly made that much more difficult.