By Mark Buckley
The recent death through ill health of a British soldier accused of the decades-old murder of John Pat Cunningham, an unarmed Irish civilian, has raised a predictable hue and cry. There are outlandish claims that British forces personnel who murdered in Ireland are somehow being persecuted. As the murder took place in 1974, the reality is that the perpetrator is now never going to face justice.
But the campaign serves a wider aim. This is to remove all legal liability for serious crimes, including murder, committed by the army and other British state forces. The government has already passed the Overseas Operations Bill which provides legal immunity to these forces operating internationally for future crimes including torture, rape and murder.
Ministers are not simply placating the most reactionary unionist and loyalist forces in Ireland, who frequently collaborated in British-run death squads such as the ones that killed Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, both solicitors. As the recent ending of all abuse claims arising out of the Iraq War shows, despite an earlier finding of numerous war crimes, this is a general policy from a deeply reactionary government.
This approach is also in evidence in the British government’s amnesty plan for all crimes committed in Ireland up to the Good Friday Agreement. The amnesty is opposed on all sides of the conflict except the British government, which wants to claim it was a referee, not a participant in the war in Ireland. The Committee on the Administration of Justice, a non-partisan body of experts, says that the British government proposal is more sweeping and draconian even that Pinochet offered his butchers after the US-backed coup in Chile.
Of course, it is nothing new that British forces engaged in invasions or in putting down the colonies have committed war crimes. As the historic court case brought by heroes of the Kenyan struggle for independence showed, the English countryside is dotted with estates where huge caches of incriminating documents are stored, detailing the worst crimes imaginable. The clear implication is that these exist for all former colonial operations.
Cover-up is not new. Instead this drive for legal amnesty and immunity for the armed forces is a new departure from a new type of oppressive British government. The supporters of ‘Empire 2.0’ in parliament, who are not at all confined to the Tory benches, aim to dispense with inquiries, inquests, judicial reviews and even the law itself in order to protect the state.
Socialists should oppose these measures and champion the cause of all those who are the victims of British military operations, giving full support to all the lawyers and other experts who try to advocate on their behalf. They should understand too, that this is a crucial part of the current ruling class offensive, and placing state forces above the law is an extremely dangerous aspect of that, both domestically as well as overseas.