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21 March 2014

Offering hope at the sharp edges

Offering hope at the sharp edges

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, included terms which meant most people imprisoned for terrorist offences became eligible for early release. The terms did not include those who had escaped custody after being charged or convicted. Neither did this arrangement include those who had been suspected, but not charged with, paramilitary offences committed before the Agreement. Those not included became known informally as "on-the-runs", or OTRs. Finding a way to deal with OTRs was difficult to say the least and no formal mechanism was ever agreed across the new executive parties.

The recent case of John Downey brought this issue right into the public square again last month. Mr Downey was on trial for the murder of four soldiers, killed in the Hyde Park bombing. During the trial he produced a letter issued by the British Government in 2007 informing him that he was not wanted by any UK Police Force at that time. This specific letter was sent in error but its worth was proved after being relied upon in court. The trial broke down and he walked out of court a free man. He denies the charges.

In the turbulent days that followed it emerged that 187 letters had been sent by the British government to OTRs. All letters were sent to Republican suspects, none were sent to Loyalist suspects. Of these letters, 149 were sent by the Labour Party before 2010 and 38 were sent by the current Government. Unionists claimed they had no knowledge of the letters, as did the Justice Minister. The First Minister threatened to resign unless a Judge-led inquiry into the matter was established. Sinn Féin maintained that Unionists were aware that some sort of mechanism was in place to deal with OTRs and that it was a pragmatic and necessary move to push the peace process forward.

It's another example of an old issue creating a new political crisis. Details will continue to emerge as the inquiry gets under way but for now this story raises more questions than it does answers.

The issue of justice is not taken lightly here. It's a difficult concept to define, but each part of the community knows when it has been on the receiving end of injustice. The release of almost 500 prisoners following the GFA was difficult for many to bear, especially for surviving victims and the families of those lost. Many though considered this, and other measures like 50 per cent remission for terrorist-related convictions after GFA, a price worth paying for peace. The OTR cases raise again difficult dilemmas around our understanding of justice, mercy and peace….

Who does justice belong to? Does it belong to victims and their families more than to the rest of society? Is it always necessary for justice to be 'seen to be done' publicly? How does justice 'work' in a post-conflict society?

The DUP quickly spun the letters as 'get out of jail free cards'. However, it's important to remember, for the very sake of faith in the justice system itself, that many letters were issued to people who were not convicted of any crimes. In fact letters were apparently only issued when those who applied had been 'investigated' to some degree and it was clear that they were not wanted by any police force at that time. Are the letters an 'amnesty' on past investigations or are they worthless as subsequently claimed by the DUP?

Difficult questions, the answers to which neither politicians nor legal experts can agree.

Coming back to the question of justice. The scriptures teach us of a few types of justice. We often focus on the reactionary side – punishment for wrongdoing. Yet the Hebrew understanding of justice was both reactive and proactive; wrongs were atoned for but simultaneously right relationships were pursued and upheld. The idea of Jubilee is a great example of pro-active justice. It redistributes wealth, important in a week when we learn that the top five richest families in the UK own as much wealth as the bottom 20 per cent of society. It's about freedom for the captive and right relationship with God, others and the land. When we have more proactive justice in society, less reactive justice is required. Applying this to OTRs, I would suggest it's important that the system of administration of justice is known and understood by all and that justice takes place in the context of restoring right relationship.

Living in the tension of the biblical text, the now and not yet of the Kingdom we are constantly called to think and act distinctively. We believe that one day justice will be done through final judgement and the renewal of all things by Christ. Can this belief create more space for us in the now to act justly and love mercy – to continue to seek justice but to simultaneously offer forgiveness?

We've been wrestling with some of these big issues, including our past, in a respectful provocation to the Church in Northern Ireland. We don't have all the answers but we're respectfully asking some important questions. Can Christians offer something hopeful at the sharp edges of justice, mercy and peace-making here in Northern Ireland?

David Smyth, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland.