Is time the only acceptable amnesty?

A few years ago a very decent DUP councillor said to me, in reference to a republican memorial in Downpatrick “The man was just a terrorist!”

The decent DUP councillor is descended from a man who fought in the 1798 rebellion. His ancestor was probably described by the establishment of the day as a terrorist (or the equivalent word of the period). With the hindsight of over two hundred years most people agree that some of the actions of the United Irishmen were acts of terror. Nearly everyone agrees that the cause of the United Irishmen was a just cause. What is not clear and probably will never, ever be clear,is whether the objectives of the just cause could have been achieved without the acts of terror. On the answer to this dilemma hangs the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter.

In Saintfield, on 9th June 1798 there was a battle between the United Irishmen rebels and the crown forces. For at least two hours around 1000 men engaged in conventional war activities – shooting, hand to hand engagement with swords, pikes, clubs and bare hands, being brave and being cowardly. It was a military engagement following the standards of the time. (One of the few in this rebellion when the rebels gained the upper hand).

A few days before this battle there was an atrocity in the area, when a group of rebels surrounded the farmhouse of a loyalist whom they believed to be an informer. They set the house on fire and the farmer, his wife, family and servants were burned to death. An act of pure terror.

Immediately after the battle the crown forces came back to Saintfield and set fire to every building on the Main Street. Some of these properties were owned by rebels, but some were not. Just reprisal or unjust, it was a terrifying experience for all. Shortly after, twelve men were hanged for the atrocious conflagration preceding the battle.

To this day, the descendants of one of the hanged men pass on from parent to child the family’s view that their ancestor was a victim of state injustice. They make a good case that their ancestor was not part of the group that fired the farmhouse, but twelve men had to be hanged for the twelve people who were murdered. The memory of injustice lives on for many generations.

Last week I heard one of the relatives of a victim of the Omagh bombing explain very movingly that the survivors and their relatives have different ways of dealing with this atrocity. Some just want to leave it behind and move on with their lives. They don’t want to be reminded about it; they don’t want to talk about it ever again. Other victims have no need for retribution, but just want the truth to be revealed. A third group will not be satisfied unless the perpetrators of the Omagh bomb are publicly tried, found guilty and serve an appropriate sentence.

It is impossible to meet these three disparate needs with one policy. The approach that will satisfy the first group will disappoint the second group and enrage the third. An approach that meets the needs of the third group will increase the hurt and trauma of the first and make them victims all over again.

As time goes on, both victims and witnesses die, and with them dies both the personal need for justice and the potential evidence to provide it. This is de facto amnesty and is possibly the only amnesty which does not add further injustice.


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