Human Rights in Irish Legal History: Mallinder on the 1969 Amnesty in Northern Ireland
Over the next three weeks a number of our regular contributors and guest bloggers will consider key events in Irish legal history which have had an impact on the political institutions in place in Ireland and in particular upon questions of human rights. The first guest post in this series is contributed by Dr Louise Mallinder, a lecturer in human rights and international law at the Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster. It explores the attempts by the Stormont Parliament to institute amnesties for particular crimes in the late 1960s and their role in the descent towards The Troubles.
For millennia, amnesty laws have been used across the world by governments whose legitimacy and authority have been threatened by rebellions and civil unrest (See eg Robert Parker, ‘Fighting the Siren’s Song: The Problem of Amnesty in Historical and Contemporary Perspective’ (2001) 42 Acta Juridica Hungarica 69). They have been used in the midst of violence as counter-insurgency measures or efforts to diffuse tensions. They are also a common feature of peace agreements (For examples of peace agreements containing amnesty provisions, see the Transitional Justice Institute/INCORE Peace Agreement Database). Indeed, Article 6(5) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions 1977, which is the only international human rights or humanitarian law treaty to explicitly mention amnesty laws, calls upon state parties to enact the ‘broadest possible amnesty’ at the end of non-international conflicts. The rationale for this provision is that an amnesty is a necessary prerequisite to encourage combatants to surrender their weapons and reintegrate into society, and that in contrast efforts to pursue retribution could risk further inflaming tensions. However, as was evident in Northern Ireland during the Consultative Group on the Past’s public consultations, amnesty laws are often strongly opposed by victims’ groups and human rights activists (Philip Bradfield, ‘Victims hit out over talks on amnesty’ Newsletter (17 January 2008); Chris Thornton, ‘“Don’t mention the war”, 2,000 letters tell Eames’ Belfast Telegraph (21 February 2008)).
This opposition argues that amnesty laws violate victims’ rights and risk undermining the rule of law (for a more detailed discussion of the international legal framework relating to amnesty laws and the arguments for and against their use, see Louise Mallinder, Amnesty, Human Rights and Political Transitions: Bridging the Peace and Justice Divide (Studies in International Law, Hart Publishing, Oxford 2008)). Such debates often overlook the fact that during the Northern Irish peace process there have been several ‘amnesty-like’ policies for encouraging disarmament, incentivising truth recovery and for releasing political offenders from prison. In addition, as this post will explore in relation to the 1969 amnesty, amnesties laws have been used in Northern Ireland’s past and have even benefited individuals who have opposed amnesty measures in the peace process (See the comments of Ian Paisley Sr, pictured above, during House of Commons debates on 13 October 2005).
In May 1969, the new Northern Irish Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clarke, decided with the support of the Attorney General and his cabinet at Stormont to introduce a general amnesty for ‘events associated with, or arising out of, political protests, utterances, marches, meetings, demonstrations’ occurring between 5 October 1968 and 6 May 1969 (Northern Ireland Information Service Press Release, 6 May 1969). This amnesty was an executive decision rather than enacted legislation. According to the Attorney General, it applied to criminal proceedings that were pending, any future proceedings, the collection of fines already imposed, and provided for the remission of sentences for those already convicted (Northern Ireland Information Service Press Release, 6 May 1969).However, the Attorney General specified ‘that proceedings would be taken against any of those persons concerned in any way with acts of sabotage who could be brought to justice’ (Northern Ireland Information Service Press Release, 6 May 1969).
The amnesty was introduced within a context of growing civil unrest and aimed to de-escalate the rapidly escalating conflict, or in the words of the then Prime Minister, to ‘wipe the slate clean and look to the future’ (Northern Ireland Information Service Press Release, 6 May 1969). It had a wide application to all criminal offences associated with the demonstrations, including attacks on civilian homes, but excluding ‘acts of sabotage’. It was designed to cover both civilians and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and it was unconditional. Among those released from prison in accordance with the amnesty were Major Ronald Bunting and the future First Minister, Ian Paisley.
The release of Mr Paisley, who had already been convicted and was serving part of his sentence (According to the papers from the time, Paisley apparently chose to be imprisoned rather than sign a bail bond.), was perhaps the most contentious issue for the cabinet when debating the amnesty, as they viewed him as too much of a security risk. Stormont Cabinet papers from the time record that after other prisoners had been released under the amnesty, Ian Paisley wrote to the Stormont government demanding that he and Major Bunting be included in the amnesty. Prime Minister Chichester Clarke described the ‘threatening tone of the letter’ as ‘deplorable’, and argued that ‘if the Paisley faction returned to the streets, the entire story of street agitation might be repeated’. Despite these reservations, Paisley was eventually released under this amnesty. However, unfortunately, this amnesty policy failed to stem the violence and it was soon followed by the outbreak of The Troubles.