21 Oct 2013

Bloody Sunday: justice has no time limit

The news from the Sunday Times that up to 20 former British soldiers may now be visited by the police in connection with the massacre of civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry 40 years ago, has caused predictable consternation in some political quarters.

What’s rather more surprising has been the reaction of a number of senior – very senior – former military people.

General Lord Richard Dannatt wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Bloody Sunday was an ugly chapter, but it is a closed chapter, and closed it should remain.”


Take Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan who described the move to possible prosecutions as “politically motivated“.

Many people may think the brass are wrong in law, wrong morally and wrong politically.

In law, there is no statute which says you can get away with shooting dead somebody who is unarmed and posing no threat just because of the passage of time. And no right-thinking person would argue that there should be one, surely?

It follows that morally, there is no reason why justice should simply evaporate into thin air, just because four decades after a possible crime of mass- murder may have elapsed.

Justice must never become the hostage of time 

And here’s where the brass have it even more wrong: politically. Because of these facts of law, there is nothing political at all in pursuing the needs of justice. In fact, the only political nuance to any of this would be not to pursue the law, to decide not to act. That would be political – a political intervention into the normal workings of law.

So the brass have it wrong on all three counts. The law should take its course. If not, then the British state would be saying in effect that time exonerates you from a crime. That time allows you to get away with murder. You just have to let enough of it pass.

Nobody can wish that to be the case.

Whether or not prosecutions are possible, or any guilt provable after so long, are quite different questions. Whether anybody at all is guilty of any crime is simply a matter of law and evidence proof. And it must be said that every single paratrooper there that terrible afternoon is quite innocent of any wrongdoing until any jury may decide otherwise.

So this is a simple legal matter and the law must take its course. The most expensive public inquiry ever in these islands reached the verdict that the shooting of 26 unarmed people that day (14 of them fatally) was “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

It therefore follows that the law must take its course and justice must never become the hostage of time.

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