A BBC Panorama programme about state killings in Northern Ireland did not reveal much more than most local people already knew, but it told a lot more people in Great Britain what they did not know at all.
The programme alleged that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch knew that their informers, within both the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitary organisations, were involved in murders but did nothing to stop them. Protecting informers to glean more information was the higher gain. Some of these murders were of other security force personnel but they were mostly innocent civilians – and the bulk of them were Catholics.
The disgusting but rather popular idea that there is a victim hierarchy is shattered by these revelations. The distinction made between victim and victim-maker that has stymied the award of pensions to those injured in the Troubles because Unionist politicians could not stomach giving money to perpetrators of violence, now collapses.
Who now is the victim-maker? The bomber and gunman or their security-force handler who did nothing to prevent murder?
The Panorama allegations of collusion pose are another challenge to the dismissive and flippant response of many Unionists, who have denied similar allegations made in the past. We can anticipate they will be dismissed again.
I am confident in this prediction because one of the features of the peace process is a moral recalibration that results in only selective condemnation. This has stooped so low as to distort the meaning of justice in Northern Ireland.
Justice past and present
Justice is one of the key principles on which to build a better future. Not the only one – there is also the need for fairness, equality of opportunity, hope, social betterment and the alleviation of human need and want – but justice is amongst the keystones. But justice looks backwards as much as forwards; it is about dealing with past injustices as well as making improvements for the future.
This means justice is much broader than merely its criminal applications. It is is not just about prosecuting past criminal wrongs; it is about ensuring that past wrongs are not repeated. And the wrongs that need to be avoided are not only criminal acts; they are all previous social, political, cultural and economic practices which ended up in people being treated as second-class citizens, without regard to their common dignity as human beings.
With this approach, justice is truly blind. All people are of equal worth. All people have equal dignity. All people should be treated fairly. No one is above the law and no one deserves less justice than anyone else.
Justice, sadly, can also be one-eyed, when only some people’s rights to justice are accorded privilege, or when some people’s injustices get attention and other’s injustices are forgotten. When we pursue only some people’s past wrongs, or only some kinds of past wrongs and not other kinds of past wrongs. When this happens, justice is no basis on which to build a better future; it is merely a way to use the past selectively.
Same crime, different outcome
Let me cite just one example of the different treatment accorded to the murder of two innocent mothers. Everyone in the UK has heard of Jean McConville. She was a mother of ten, abducted and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1972. It is a case used to highlight the inhumanity of the IRA. Gerry Adams was arrested and released without charge over his alleged involvement.
But who is Joan Connolly? She was a mother of eight shot by the Parachute Regiment in the unprovoked killing of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy in West Belfast in 1971. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has refused an enquiry into these murders. Justice for these two mothers is not equal.
This is the true significance of the Panorama allegations. State or state-sponsored killings are looked at differently. But when those who make the law break the law, there is no law – and when there is no law, there is no morality. When justice is unjust, morality itself is undermined. Justice that is one-eyed is no justice at all.
John Brewer receives funding from The ESRC and the Leverhulme Trust
Authors: The Conversation