This week the UK Government announced plans to introduce a statute of limitations for troubles related crimes which predated the Belfast Agreement. Regarded as an effective amnesty both for terrorists and soldiers serving in Northern Ireland the plans have been greeted with outrage across the political spectrum and by the innocent victims of terrorism especially.
In January 2018 I presented the following talk on the topic of Justice, Forgiveness and Reconciliation to a group of innocent victims and survivors of the Troubles at SEFF in Lisnaskea; the content is particularly relevant this week.
You can also listen to the accompanying audio:
My Personal Interest in Victims and the Justice they Deserve
Between 1989 and 1992 I served as a Minister’s Assistant to Rev William McCrea in Calvary Free Presbyterian Church in Magherafelt. Working closely with an MP, albeit in his capacity as Pastor, who bravely put his life on the line for public service, during some of Mid Ulster’s darkest days made a profound impression upon a young man just out of his teens, who was in a manner of speaking ‘learning his trade.’ While Rev McCrea, for understandable reasons, lived with a constant police presence there were many brave members of the security forces who could not be given that kind of protection. In Mid-Ulster in those days there were also the workmen. Builders, joiners, electricians, plumbers – who because their employer was willing to take on Security Force contracts found themselves in the firing line.
I will never forget 17th January 1992. Driving through the square in Magherafelt a line of ambulances met me with flashing lights. Something bad had happened. At Teebane,in the Sperrins between Cookstown and Omagh a bomb had exploded murdering eight workmen who were travelling in a mini bus. I visited a survivor in hospital who shared his story. A young man had hopped into his usual seat. That young man died and he survived.
Another night I recall with even greater clarity. On Thursday 8th March 1990 I arrived at the Church to conduct the weekly prayer meeting. Rev McCrea was in South America at that time. The Clerk of Session informed me that Tommy Jamieson, UDR Sergeant, had been murdered that day, as he drove a Cement Mixer back from Clogher to Magherafelt. In the absence of the Minister it was my duty to go to the home and provide what pastoral care I could. I will never forget as long as I live, the heartbreak of a widow and her little family, on that night. Every time I drive past the spot where the gunman lay, between Castlecaufield and Donnaghmore, I think of Tommy Jamieson, a man whom I had never met in life.
I am deeply conscious from personal experiences that there are thousands of homes and families across our province who have lost their nearest and dearest as a result of the terrorist’s bomb or bullet throughout those years that we call “The Troubles”.
The question ultimately arises, however – Can there be Justice? Such is the nature of our society today that there are some who try to make the victims of terrorism feel guilty because of their quest for justice. Some wish to forget the past and others talk about moving forward and leaving the past where it is.
Then there is the question of Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Yes; we do live in a divided society where there is sectarian strife and hatred. Yes, there is a need for forgiveness and reconciliation. But can this take place in the absence of justice? The ‘Post Troubles Era’ interests me greatly because I believe there is as much sectarianism amongst young people who never experienced those years of bloodshed, as there was during those years. The manner in which some of our communities appear to be on a knife edge and the total breakdown of our political process indicates to me that we in Northern Ireland have been the subject of a failed experiment. Justice has been set to the one side and where are we?
The Ulster Museum’s Troubles Gallery states that The Troubles did not begin in a vacuum. I am going to argue tonight that neither can Forgiveness and Reconciliation take place in a vacuum; where Justice has been negated.
JUSTICE AND OUR DNA.
The Right of Every Man; The Mark of a Truly Civilised Society
One of the fundamental ingredients of a civilised society is the provision of justice. There is an expectation that the various components of the Criminal Justice System must be functioning in order that the innocent are protected and the perpetrators are punished. Therefore police, judges, courts, juries, lawyers and prisons are all sad but necessary realities in a society which is functioning properly. Where justice is not functioning anarchy and barbarism take place. But even in the most primitive, what we may call the most barbaric society, there remains forms of justice. There are rules regarding behaviours like stealing, murder and adultery with the penalties being often harsh and unforgiving. This expectation that justice in some form must exist is universal in it’s scope.
Why is it that as human beings we expect and demand justice? We have been created in the image of God our Creator, who as a just being has placed a reflection of His attributes in His creatures. Therefore the expectation that justice must exist comes primarily from God.
Within what is technically called the Judeo-Christian Tradition the characterisation of God as a just being, who applies this justice in the world of men, is exceptionally strong, particularly in the Book of Psalms. In the 7th Psalm, for example, we have prayers such as:
Is it morally right therefore for the International War Crimes Court to be sitting in The Hague dealing with the perpetrators of war crimes, as they have been doing in the cases associated with the Serbian Wars? Should the Hillsborough victims not have forgotten the past, as some say the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland ought to do? Surely Germany has gone too far in trying 93 year old Oskar Groening, dubbed ‘the bookkeeper of Aushwitz’. In every case we must argue that justice must be served and whether the victims are the survivors of the Holocaust, the relatives of those crushed to death at the fateful FA Cup Semi Final or those who suffered in the Serbian genocide – their cry for justice must be respected and acted on. To do anything less is not only shameful but it is to be less than human. By the same token the victims of IRA violence not only have the right but the responsibility to continue and persist in their quest for justice.
A Conditional Gift
The Bible teaches us that God is not only just but He is forgiving; gracious and kind. Indeed theologians argue that grace and love are the principle driving forces within His nature. Yet His desire to reach out in love never occurs without satisfying His justice and the expectation that the sinner must repent or turn from his or her sin.
Therefore writing to the Romans St Paul spoke of God remaining “just” while at the same “justifying him that believeth on Jesus”. This is why the cross of Christ was such a pivotal event. Jesus Christ in undergoing three terrible hours of darkness suffered the justice that we deserved. God only forgives on the basis of the justice already satisfied by His Son through His sacrifice.
At the same time, the person who is forgiven must, according to the Gospel, repent or turn from the path of sin that they once trod. It is inexplicable for a Christian to declare with confidence, ‘I am forgiven’, while behaving more like a devil than a saint. Such a person will rightly be denounced as a hypocrite.
Therefore these two facets must be joined together for true forgiveness to be provided:
a The Satisfaction of Justice.
b The Manifestation of Repentance.
My argument therefore follows that if we are God’s creatures, then we cannot be expected to show forgiveness on grounds that are less than the territory that God Himself occupies when He forgives us our sins.
THE POST TROUBLES ERA
Practical Applications for 21st Century Society in Northern Ireland
As justice is an essential mark of a truly civilised society the Government has a legal and moral duty, to pursue ‘to the ends of the earth’ without the restraints of time, the perpetrators of crime, in order that a punishment will be applied that fits that crime. The UK Government ought to be pursuing terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland with the same vigour that they will pursue murderers in England. This is their responsibility under God. The victims of terrorism have every right to campaign for justice and to pray for it, as the victims of any other atrocity will do.
Whether the terrorists are ‘orange or green’ is of no relevance. Those responsible for atrocities, and who have not been dealt with through the courts, have a moral duty to come forward and declare what they know, if they have turned their backs on their murderous past. There are homes across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland who wish to know why their loved one was murdered and who was responsible for that crime. These people have a right to know.
More fundamentally, however, those who perpetrated terrorist crimes during The Troubles must come forward and declare that what they did was immoral and wrong. In this regard Sein Fein must be selected for particular criticism because this party is entitled to seats in the Northern Ireland Executive by virtue of their considerable mandate. Is it too much to both ask and expect a party which is in Government to condemn the IRA’s murderous campaign?. Sadly not only have Sein Fein been mocking the victims, as in the Barry McElduff incident, but they have been consistently justifying the IRA activities and eulogising the people whom they call the volunteers.
On 13th August 1995 Gerry Adams infamously said of the IRA:
On 1st August 2016 Sein Fein MLA and former IRA member Sean Lynch had this to say in an interview with the Impartial Reporter:
In May of 2017 Northern Sein Fein Leader Michelle O’Neill spoke at a public commemoration event, honouring the memory of 8 IRA terrorists executed by the SAS, while prosecuting their murderous activities. During her speech she had this to say:
In July Stephen McCann, Chairman of the Omagh and Fermanagh Council, refused to condemn the Enniskillen atrocity:
In that interview he made mention of IRA gunman Seamus McElwaine shot dead by the SAS:
With this kind of attitude to terrorism endemic within the psychology of Sein Fein, it is clear that a seismic change must take place in their thinking before they will admit that what they did was wrong, let alone divulge the dark murky secrets of their past activities.
Until this happens, however, the victims must NOT be expected to show forgiveness.
C THE INNOCENT VICTIMS
Not showing forgiveness, however, is not the same as being consumed with bitterness and hatred. Some victims feel pressurised into talking about forgiving for fear that they will be eaten up with anger. The victim can know peace without forgiving the terrorist.
How does this work out in practice? The answer in found in Jesus Christ. He died on the cross for the forgiving of our sin, for the healing of our brokenness and and for bringing us to perfect peace. Rather than focusing upon forgiving the perpetrator, the victim ought to look to the Prince of Peace to discover true rest.
Christ was the ultimate innocent victim. His death was the greatest injustice in the history of the world. The perfect man was executed by crucifixion, the cruellest death in all history. He understands the pain of the broken heart. It is only through His wounds that the victim can find healing. Faith in Christ alone brings us to perfect peace and rest.
Christ is also the answer to the injustices that afflict us. He did not just die, He rose again. Preaching to the atheistic pagans in cultured Athens, the Apostle Paul brought them face to face with the judgement day when all the world would be tried by Jesus Christ. As time passes it becomes increasingly unlikely that the victims of our troubled past will experience true justice. But Christ will come and deal with every injustice at the bar of His law. The gunman and the bomber who escaped the courts of the British Jurisdiction will be brought face to face with God. As the text at the bottom of the Kingsmill Memorial states “The Lord hates hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 18:17).
Ultimately it is Christ and His Gospel which holds the key for our divided society. Only when men and women from both sides of our community seek the Saviour who offered Himself for all men and women will our peoples be able to set aside the bitterness and division that have characterised Ulster for generations:
“In Him was life and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4)