I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Talkback’ programme yesterday along with my good friend Brian Feeney. Brian continues to act as faithful family retainer to the owners of the VO, in which he airs his views every Wednesday. We were on ‘Talkback’ to discuss whether the British soldiers found guilty of shooting dead fourteen innocent civilians and injuring fourteen more on Bloody Sunday should be prosecuted.
Brian thought not, because...Well, I’m still not sure. He seemed to be saying that if the soldiers were prosecuted, this would make life difficult for British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I suggested that not prosecuting foul deeds on the grounds that it’d put a damper on other British soldiers commiting foul deeds in other countries, Brian said he wasn’t saying that. I’m still not sure what he was saying, I’m afraid. The other reason he seemed to be giving (notice how careful I’m being in my phrasing? ‘Seemed to be giving’) was that we’re a divided society here and this would agitate unionists. I used to hear the same argument used against mentioning the two dreaded words ‘United Ireland’. A senior SDLP politician some years ago advised that the term shouldn’t be used for forty years, in order to avoid civil war.
Unlike my close chum Brian, I’m in favour of prosecutions. I think it reflects rather badly on a state’s system of justice if it is confronted with what look like fourteen murders committed by the forces of law and order, and decides it’s in the public interest not to bring them before the courts. The common objection by unionists is that hundreds of paramilitaries, also guilty of shooting people, have been released from prison. Leaving aside the amount of time some of them spent in prison, we need to accept that guardians of law and order shooting innocent people is different from paramilitaries shooting innocent people. And if you can’t accept that differentiation, then there should be no talk of some victims of violence during the Troubles being different from other victims. If you believe that all combatants in the conflict, including the British army, are essentially the same, then as much should also go for victims.
But of course none of this line of reasoning will wash with those who’ve already made up their minds. In their estimation there is a line of Good to Bad, with the UDA and the UVF at the Slightly Not Good point, the IRA at the Definitely Bad point and the INLA at the So Bad They’re Bonkers point. At the other end we find the British army, the UDR and the RUC very firmly under the indicator Heroic-In-Word-and-Deed.