Thursday, November 10, 2005

Amnesties for terrorists?

On any other day, an attempt by Tony Blair's government to introduce a Bill to parliament that would grant amnesties to IRA fugitives for crimes committed before 1998 would be at the very forefront of political debate; howevert, recent events have meant that we barely have barely heard about it. Naturally, the irony of presenting this Bill on the same day (yesterday) as he tried to force through the ill-fated 90 day detention-without-trial period has not been lost on the Unionists or Conservatives.

The Bill proposes that anyone accused of terrorist offences commited before the 10th of April 1998 who return to Northern Ireland would still face trial, but, even if convicted, would then be released under licence. Although the timing of the introduction of these proposals is perhaps a little clumsy, to claim inconsistency in Blair's approach (as the Tories have done) simply because he is, on the same day, seeking to imprison "terrorists" for 90 days without trial and looking to give them amnesties, is more than a little disingenious. Of course, measures of this sort can always be characterised by opponents as "giving in to terrorism" and by proponents as "intended to end, not further terrorism"; the trick is thus not to rely on abstract formulations, but to examine the context to see which of the statements is the most convincing in the particular case.

In this case, the relative threats posed by the two situations targeted by the two Bills are entirely different; and the peace process in Northern Ireland is, many feel, approaching its endgame. It is simply lazy thinking to insist that problematic and vague abstract categories should be applied automatically, regardless of the complexities of context. In the current context of Northern Ireland (and bearing in mind that most terrorists from the period in question have already been released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement), the government has, in my view, got this one right.

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