By Jack Holland
How would you enjoy your Christmas dinner if you knew that somewhere, probably not very far from where you and your family are about to enjoy your meal, the man who murdered your husband — or father or brother or son or mother or wife or daughter — is being wined and dined by his friends and family, having just been set free from jail by the Good Friday peace agreement? I think it is safe to say that, for most people, it would put them off their food and cast a blight over the festive season.
Yet this Christmas in Northern Ireland, that has been the situation for thousands of widows and orphans, of countless families whose shattered mothers and fathers confront the empty seat at the table where their child should have been sitting. The truth about the peace process is that they are the ones who are paying the heaviest price for it — knowing that justice will never be done for what has happened to them. The amazing thing is that so many have been prepared to pay it in order for to make the Good Friday agreement succeed and secure, hopefully, a lasting peace. For the vast majority of those who support the agreement, and are eager to see it work, the early release of men, many of them convicted of heinous acts, remains an abstract problem in morality and politics. They have not been called upon to show such generosity of spirit. Let us pray they never will.
It was a major test of the agreement this year and last when large numbers of paramilitaries were seen coming out of jail, some to welcomes from their colleagues who treated them as heroes when to the ordinary decent person they were criminals. This revulsion was more prevalent within the Protestant community, which has never had a very high regard for its own paramilitaries. The claims of groups such as the UDA and UVF to have been fighting for "Ulster" are not taken seriously by the majority of Protestants, who tend to view these organizations as more criminal than political. They were also angered by the sight of the Shankill bomber walking free after serving four years — which works out at less than six months for each of the nine innocent people who died in the explosion.
Of course, the Good Friday agreement could not have been signed in the first place without an accord being reached on the treatment of paramilitary prisoners. Both the Irish and British governments had to accept the paramilitary groups’ own view of themselves as essentially political prisoners, and treat them accordingly. That meant extending the definition of what constitutes a political prisoner to include people who committed acts against civilians which would normally have put them in the category of war criminals. But ordinary norms have been ignored for a long time in the North. As well, in terms of implementing the agreement, politics have dictated a certain inconsistency of treatment, depending on who commits the crime and where.
South of the border, for instance, IRA members who were convicted of shooting dead Garda Jerry McCabe in June 1996 in the course of an attempted robbery are not regarded as eligible for release under the terms of the GFA. A year later, RUC constables Richard Graham and David Johnston, who worked as community policemen, were on patrol in Lurgan when IRA gunmen shot them dead. If convictions had been obtained in that case, those found guilty of the murders would have been released by now. Meanwhile, the five men convicted in connection with the garda killing are still in jail, though Sinn Fein is fighting to have them released.
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"Those people qualify under the Good Friday agreement and there’s no question about that," said Martin McGuinness. Unfortunately for Sinn Fein, there clearly is a question about it in the minds of the Irish government and many, if not most, citizens of the Republic of Ireland. There is already a great deal of anger about the fact that a bargain was done at the trial which led to four of the five pleading guilty to manslaughter charges, and receiving relatively light sentences in a minimum security prison. Outrage in the South was intensified by a mural which appeared recently in West Belfast wishing the killers of Garda McCabe a happy New Year.
Una Heaton, a friend of Garda McCabe’s widow, told RTE:
"I’m nearly going to cry here because I find it unbelievable that this country is bowing down before terrorism. I was involved in the peace process with the victims of Omagh and I’m totally against letting these guys out. . . . They are laughing in the face of the ordinary decent man in the street."
By "this country" Ms. Heaton presumably means the Irish Republic.
In the North, people regard the Garda McCabe controversy as evidence of a tremendous hypocrisy at work on the other side of the border. Southern politicians who oppose the release of Garda McCabe’s killers would raise an outcry if Unionists took the same stand against the release of IRA men convicted of murdering RUC officers. They would be accused of being intransigent and of jeopardizing the peace process. The double-standard applies in other ways. Last month, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahearn, when questioned about the possibility of Fianna Fail going into coalition with Sinn Fein after the next general election, said that Sinn Fein would have to resolve the matter of the IRA first, because there was only one legitimate army in the Irish Republic and that was the army raised by the state. In other words, it seems that the IRA would have to disband before Fianna Fail would go into government with Sinn Fein. Yet, if Unionist leader David Trimble demanded this, he would be furiously denounced by Nationalists as an unreasonable diehard.
In the race to achieve a political settlement, many issues of moral import were fudged, necessarily, perhaps. One of the most important fudges, from which many of the problems stem, was the assertion that there could be no winners or losers in the conflict. But since all sides can assume they "won," it is not surprising that they resist any demand that smacks of having been defeated — such as weapons decommissioning. At the same time, they celebrate the release of their prisoners as proof of their "victory," thus adding to the anguish of the loved ones of their victims. They continue to suffer so that we can feel safe.