Attorney General John Larkin of Northern Ireland has stirred passionate controversy with his suggestion that the passage of time makes it counterproductive to continue investigating the sectarian raids and military operations that took more than 3,500 lives during the Troubles, the violent conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted more than a generation.
Mr. Larkin, the chief legal adviser to the provincial government, told the BBC that the time had come to consider drawing a limit on prosecutions for acts committed before the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which largely ended years of bloodshed. “Every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year,” he said, arguing that there’s a logical need to “take stock.”
Mr. Larkin’s point may be valid on the narrow scales of efficiency and expense in the criminal justice system, but it fails miserably on the scales of justice for the many victims and scarred survivors of the Troubles. Public officials have roundly condemned the idea. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain called the prosecution limit “rather dangerous,” while Northern Irish politicians angrily asked how time’s passage could make murder undeserving of investigation and prosecution. Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said it was “an utter betrayal of victims’ fundamental right to access justice.”
The timing of Mr. Larkin’s call for a policy review could not have been worse. A BBC news report has focused on a secret British army unit, the Military Reaction Force, whose members said they had a standing license to kill civilians in the fight against the Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla units.
In Belfast, where resentments and memories of sectarian mayhem still burn strong, officials have approved a march by 10,000 citizens and 40 bands on Nov. 30 to protest restrictions on flying the British flag at city hall. Marches and chauvinist flag waving are some of the issues being negotiated in talks brokered by Richard Haass, the former American diplomat, to find ways deal with the explosive legacy of the Troubles.
Much good in safety and sanity has flowed from the Good Friday agreement. There is no need to draw a curtain on a lethal past that clearly remains deeply relevant for the people of Northern Ireland.