British politician Peter Hain, amongst others, has recently called for an official amnesty to be extended to the British soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday massacre of February 1972. In 2010 the Saville Inquiry reported that British Paratroopers opened fire first, and in 2012 the Police Service of Northern Island launched an investigation that could take around four years to conclude.
Hain et al’s arguments can be summarised as being two distinct but related ones. The first is the stability of the current region: would it really help stability, 42 years on, if old crimes were dug up and prosecuted? The second is the fact that the Republican terrorists were granted an effective amnesty, and thus it would be “an outrage” to put servicemen on trial if terrorists had been given an amnesty.
On the first reason, stability, the implication seems to be that justice has an expiry date, at least when bringing the facts to the light of day would cause more harm, in terms of upsetting locals and potentially causing more violence, than the intrinsic benefit ‘justice’ provides. Whilst we might like to believe a nation such as the UK ought to always have room for justice, it is not difficult to see how such a sensitive incident could impact British policy, especially if the police force is able to interview the 250 soldiers it wants to.
However, the second topic seems more relevant in terms of the treatment of amnesties. That Republicans were given an effective amnesty. Why, then, should British soldiers be treated any differently? Perhaps because, by definition, soldiers are under the direct rule of military law, and their ought to be a differentiation in terms of conduct for soldiers. Perhaps also because, for pragmatic reasons, the prosecution of soldiers might be less likely to lead to instability than Republicans. Finally, perhaps because the Saville Inquiry put the police in an impossible situation, by stating the British Paras opened fire first. Incidentally, here we see a potential interpretation of the ‘most responsible’ aspect of the crime, in much the way that the ICC views such crimes. This is not to say Republicans did nothing wrong, but perhaps it is possible to make the argument that by opening fire first, the British were the ‘most responsible’, and therefore should be the ones prosecuted. What seems clear is that amnesty, if not doled out in equal measure, seems difficult to take, especially when surrounded in the language of ‘servicemen’ and ‘terrorists’, especially when it is the latter that has been given de facto amnesties.
Yet one question to come out of this is what similar judgements will say about the treatment of Iraqi, Afghan and other PoWs by the British Army. It is also easier to prosecute a crime many years after the fact when, to an extent, the negatives about the politics have faded. It is much harder to do so now, perhaps why attempts at holding British troops responsible in these conflicts have had a very different, more lethargic feel about them. What, then, might similar arguments be 40 years from today? And who should get amnesty?