The trouble in taking the high moral ground, in being the bigger person, is quite frankly, that it sucks. The platitudes we preach to our children, that it’s important to turn the other cheek and walk away from potential conflict? It’s a blatant fallacy. And worse, when this fib is laid bare, so too are our insecurities, our very human instincts to point at transgressors and shout hysterically ‘…but they did it too!’
Although this approach might be undignified (at best) in secondary school (imagine spotty teens trying to pin the blame for smoking/drinking/curfew breaking/window breaking on a peer), it becomes a little less accessible when you move to the big leagues. As an adult you are expected to be able to differentiate between right and wrong, to align yourself with a certain moral code and follow it. Now, reasonable people are somewhat philosophical about this approach, allowing a certain amount of ‘wiggle room’ in the process, the odd slip and a healthy amount of ‘judge not lest ye be judged.’ And history, history has an unfortunate habit of judging people…
These life lessons seem to have washed over current British Prime Minister Theresa May. I say current because owing to the current and unfolding slow-motion car crash that is the Brexit negotiations, she was still PM as of 15 May 2018. A little background: as Brexit is threatening to split the UK Conservative Party asunder, the PM has (like her predecessors) been forced into drawing support from an unlikely source, Unionism. The Democratic Unionist Party, tenuously operating under the leadership of Arlene Foster (another divisive figure in British politics), is propping up the Tories, but is extorting a high price for fealty. In order to guarantee their continued support for the Brexit process, the British government has been forced into adopting increasingly hawkish lines on a number of security and trade-related issues. Foremost among them is the investigation of former members of the security forces for crimes committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
The main issue here revolves around proportionality and culpability. It is the view of the current British government, speaking as it does for the British State, that it is unfair for veterans of the security forces (retired policemen, soldiers, and official paramilitary/security operatives from MI5/6) to be the sole targets for investigations by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Previously the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) had been charged with investigating these cases, however the HET was wound up in 2014 amid allegations of bias in conducting investigations primarily aimed at non-state actors.
May has spoken on the parliamentary record stating that plans for a new unit to focus on historical violent acts committed by members of the security forces are ‘patently unfair’ and indicated that non-state actors (read as Republicans) are evading their fair share of justice as a result. This is despite the fact that the state broadcaster, the BBC, has recently disclosed information which directly contradicts Mrs. May’s assertion. Indeed PSNI figures show that former Republicans are being investigated at a ratio of 2:1 when compared with Loyalists/Unionists and a 140% of cases being pursued against members of the security forces. So the British Empress clearly has no clothes on this occasion.
Now the government has mooted the idea of an amnesty for former soldiers and policemen/women who may have committed a crime during the Troubles, or are otherwise under investigation by the PSNI. Potentially there are a number of issues which may arise regarding the implementation of such a protocol. There is the obvious one, that it would be very similar to the amnesty offered to former paramilitaries after the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which saw prison sentences for terrorism-related offences quashed. The United Nations has declared that a ‘self-amnesty’ such as this would only serve to help ‘shield’ former actors from accountability by the State’s own legal apparatus, thereby reducing public confidence instead of bolstering it. It would also provoke an understandably massive and impassioned response from the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, which would probably see it as retrenchment by the British government at a particularly sensitive time of the Brexit negotiations. It may also result in a violent backlash and/or a snap border vote being called.
From a legal point of view, implementing an amnesty or statue of limitations for crimes committed by HM Forces may be a difficult product to sell. For one thing, normal politics may pre-empt it, with Labour unlikely to support a government bill and the ever likely probability of dissension on Tory benches. British civil law may also be problematic, as the alleged actions in question took place domestically, in Northern Ireland. Martial Law has always been a thorny subject, and even the Emergency Powers Act is not as watertight as many would like. Any amnesty would be immediately subjected to legal challenge and could conceivably contravene rulings by the European Court of Justice, which would have a knock-on effect on Brexit negotiations.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) may offer tacit support, but may also be aware of the negative optics associated with such a move, at a time when recruitment videos are focusing on inclusion, not amnesty from war crimes. This is especially sensitive when one considers the fact that the British Army is currently operating in other parts of the world with cultural/religious issues, like Afghanistan. Any amnesty would surely include members of the Parachute Regiment for the unlawful killing of civilians during Bloody Sunday in Derry, the 1992 Coalisland Riots and the dubious activities of the Force Response Unit.
Such breakdowns in good order and discipline by an avowedly professional force, should surely be punished severely, their perpetrators subject to the full rigours of both military and civil law. These breaches should not be condoned and pardoned. This article should not be construed as a condemnation of the British military, or their particpiation in a very trying situation, or support for the activities of Republicans. Rather it should be viewed as an alternative proof to the British argument. The trouble with being an adult, being responsible, being in charge, is that you have to be all of those things. And you have to espouse those leadership traits at all times, often under severe duress and when it would be far easier to simply bow to the pressure. But if you give in to this pressure, then you have reduced your moral argument to that of those you seek to counter, those you label ‘terrorists.’
Responsibility, though an unpopular concept in modern political life, is actually quite an attractive quality. It is the sigil of a mature, democratic nation-state. It declares to the world that, yes, we have made past errors in judgement. We have not arrived at our destination as a body politic, but we committed to moving in that direction. Theresa May’s recent parliamentary outburst came just one day after the government she heads was forced to pay compensation and officially apologise to a man whom, wished to seek asylum in Britain owing to his political and religious beliefs, MI6 facilitated the abduction and torture of. In 21st century Britain, should the government simply decide to grow up and stop condoning and enabling state-sponsored criminality?
Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel: Government Response to the Committee’s Seventh Report of Session 2016-17, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmdfence/549/54902.htm