Some time ago, I posted on the UK Government's plans to introduce what were effectively amnesties for those on the run who were accused of crimes committed prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (introduced somewhat clumsily at on the same day as the attempt to force through the 90-day detention plan for others suspected of terrorism). This scheme would have meant that those involved went before special tribunals in order to have their guilt decided, and, if found guilty, they would then be released on licence, in a manner similar to those who have been freed from prison during the peace process. Earlier this week, the Government chose to shelve those plans.
The scheme had attracted almost universal criticism - not least because the accused would not be compelled to face their victims in the special tribunals. However, the Government seemed determined to press on until even Sinn Fein, the (erstwhile?) militant republican party, decided to oppose it - on the grounds that they found it unacceptable that those who had been members of the Security Forces would also benefit from the protection that they sought for their allies. At the time, I supported the Government's decision to introduce the bill; likewise, now, I feel that they had little choice but to withdraw it.
As the Secretary of State Peter Hain noted in his statement to Parliament, the situation of those on the run for crimes for which they would have been released under the Good Friday Agreement represents an anomoly that will have to be dealt with before the peace process can be brought to a close. He is also correct, I think, in noting that "it is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do so". The real shame of this episode is not that the Government was forced into a u-turn, or that fugitives won't get their amnesties: it is what this failure says about the current state of the peace process itself. It is as if things have gone, and continue to go, backwards: as the Guardian notes, it would have been far easier to get this Bill through in 2001 than it has proved in 2006. And we are not yet aware of all of the potential repercussions: the pledge to introduce a Bill on fugitives was a key part of the negotiating positions that led to the IRA's decision to end its armed struggle and comply with the decomissioning requirements of the Agreement; it will be interesting to see what happens now that these plans have been shelved. All eyes are now on the devolved government in Stormont, and the power-sharing executive. If these are not fully operational by the time of the next scheduled elections in 2007, things will look very bleak indeed.