Thursday, November 10, 2005

It's a bit late for SDLP's 'principled' stand

Brian Feeney:

The SDLP have set out six 'principles' for dealing with on-the-runs or OTRs. They're not principles at all of course, they're conditions but the word 'principles' always sounds much grander and more important. It's a bit late though for either principles or conditions.

Why demand trials now for OTRs when both the SDLP and UUP were happily urging voters to support the Good Friday Agreement which guaranteed release of any prisoner as long as he or she belonged to an illegal paramilitary organisation? What new principle is at stake that wasn't jettisoned seven years ago in the rush to get the GFA up and running?

Maybe the SDLP is thinking only of OTRs who haven't been convicted of any offence but jumped bail, or just made themselves scarce in case they were going to be charged with some offence.

Seriously? Do they think any former IRA member is going to come over the border and own up to a criminal offence?

So how many trials would the SDLP want? Forty, 50?

Who would pay the millions the trials would cost?

Would they all be over in the year the SDLP has stipulated as the time limit? No chance.

So they'd be remanded in custody awaiting trial? Great.

Let's suppose for a second that OTRs agreed to such a procedure. What would happen if the first few were found not guilty? After all, 30-odd years ago is a long time.

Could there be a safe conviction on the basis of evidence, especially recollections of events, in the early seventies? Of course not.

So maybe it's a crafty SDLP plot to get the OTRs off altogether?

Go one better than an amnesty? Hardly.

On the other hand, maybe it's a genius plan to watch a few dozen IRA figures being put on trial for their activities decades ago while British soldiers and RUC men get off scot free since there's no question of any of them going on trial for anything and none will spend a day in jail. That would be a real political coup for the SDLP, wouldn't it?

Why didn't we hear any of this in 2001 when the British government and the IRA first did the deal on the OTRs? Why did the SDLP unquestioningly sign up to the Joint Declaration in May 2003 which contained even more lax provisions for OTRs?

One thing at least you could say about the DUP is that it isconsistent in its opposition.

You could but you'd be wrong.

The DUP was prepared to sign up to a 'comprehensive' deal last December which would have included the OTR deal which it was blaming on the UUP. It was OK then but now the oul' curmudgeon calls it a great betrayal and pledges the 'greatest possible resistance' to the proposed OTR bill.

By the way, wasn't it curious to watch Arlene Foster on TV on Sunday opposing the OTR bill when she was a member of the UUP in 2001 when it was agreed in principle, that word again, at Weston Park?

Why didn't she resign then if it was so heinous?

The truth of the matter is that the word principle is the last one that can be used about a process which has to be entirely unprincipled. The fact is that this British government came into power in 1997 with the clear intention of getting the prisoners out because that is an essential feature of any conflict resolution here. Releasing them was an acknowledgement that what passed for law and the judicial process was a tool of the British administration here and that the only principles which applied were those enunciated by Brigadier Kitson in his 1971 book Low Intensity Operations.

Kitson recommended that the law should be used as a weapon of the state to counter subversion and insurgency and so it was.

The deal on OTRs, devoid of any legal principle as it must be, therefore makes an important point for Sinn Féin, namely that this place is not like, altogether now, 'the rest of the UK' but an entirely artificial construct where the rule of law is whatever the British parliament says it is. Does the SDLP leader not know that?

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