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THIS is not the first time the Tories have cynically sought to utilise militant loyalism to try to strengthen their own negotiating hand.
As Labour MP Dawn Butler has bravely highlighted, telling the truth does not come naturally to Boris Johnson, but it is the best way to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Unfortunately, recent actions by the government, from its approach to the legacies of the Troubles to more recent issues arising from its own Brexit deal, signal its intention to do the opposite.
Last month, in this column, I wrote about the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre — 10 innocent people shot dead by members of the British Parachute Regiment in Belfast between 9 and 11 August 1971. The backdrop to those killings was the start of “Operation Demetrius” — the introduction of mass internment without trial — 50 years ago this week.
Monday August 9 1971 saw 342 people arrested and imprisoned in internment camps — many of them subjected to forms of interrogation that the Irish government has long believed amounted to torture.
The policy proved disastrous. In the immediate aftermath, an estimated 7,000 mostly Catholic people were forced to flee their homes with an unknown number permanently crossing the Irish border as refugees, as violence reached new heights. Nearly 2,000 people would be jailed without charge before internment was eventually abandoned in 1975, while on January 30 1972, soldiers belonging to the same Parachute Regiment fired on an anti-internment march in Derry, claiming 14 civilian lives on “Bloody Sunday.”
On July 2 this year, prosecutors announced their intention to drop the case against soldier “F” — the only former British army member charged for his role in Bloody Sunday — as well as that against soldier “B”, charged with the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty, who was shot twice in the head in Derry later in 1972.
Less than two weeks after these announcements, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis seized the opportunity to declare the government’s intention to introduce an amnesty for all Troubles-related offenses.
All victims and their families have the right to seek truth and justice and unsurprisingly these plans have been opposed by all parties in Ireland, north and south, as well as representatives of victims and human rights groups. But the timing and the commentary surrounding these proposals clearly point to an intention to shield and cover up the actions of state forces.
Far from seeking a “way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation,” as the government has claimed, this measure directly follows a Conservative commitment to shelter former British army personnel from what it calls “vexatious investigations, inquests and prosecutions from the Northern Ireland Troubles.”
It also builds on earlier legislation to protect those guilty of similar crimes elsewhere. In reality, only four soldiers have ever been convicted for their actions during the Troubles and all were released early and permitted to return to their regiments.
It may be un-parliamentary to say so, but the biggest obstacle on “the road to reconciliation” today is not the search for justice by grieving relatives but the tensions encouraged by a much more recent piece of Johnson’s calculated dishonesty.
When he wanted to garner their support, he repeatedly promised unionists that his Brexit deal would not result in a customs border in the Irish Sea and, since those checks inevitably materialised, he has tried to shirk responsibility onto the Irish government and the European Union.
The recent threats from Brexit minister, David Frost, citing “political and community instability,” to unilaterally suspend the new arrangements if British demands to rewrite the agreement are not met, have recklessly given succour to those who already have and would again encourage disorder on the streets.
It is not the first time that the Conservative Party has cynically sought to utilise militant loyalism to try to strengthen its own negotiating hand, but lies, false promises and cover ups are no way to promote peace. Even if it does mean breaking with the habits of more than one lifetime, Johnson and the Tories should start telling the truth about Ireland.
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