Sometimes an ethical dilemma can arise between justice in an individual case, and the wider needs of society. In general, pursuing individual justice should be the priority; the law should indeed be blind. One of the greatest abuses of power in the UK in my lifetime was Tony Blair’s intervention to halt the prosecution of BAE executives for massive corruption, on the basis that revealing corruption among Saudi sheikhs, and damaging our great manufacturer of instruments of death, was against the “wider national interest”.
The long term consequences of such exceptionalism are a license for government abuse. However, in the question of the guarantees given to wanted paramilitaries from Northern Ireland that they would not be prosecuted, I believe the correct thing was done, and the coming inquiry is not helpful – it is like sticking a knife into a wound to check how it is healing.
I grappled with these questions in a still more extreme form as UK representative at the Sierra Leone peace talks. The only way to end long-running violent conflicts is to talk and reason with the parties, and seek to redress the underlying causes of conflict. To seek to inflict further state violence, in the form of imprisonment, can undermine the process. This requires very difficult moral compromise, and it is unavoidable that victims will feel they have not obtained individual justice. I can even understand that in these circumstances it can be right for certain amnesties or actions to be unacknowledged or secret.
Peter Hain spoke great sense last week when he said that to keep the peace in Northern Ireland, we have to let go of the past, and stop pursuing not only IRA men, but also policemen, soldiers and official murderers like those who organized the killing of Pat Finucane. This is hard indeed for the families and the maimed, I realize. I am also particularly pleased that John Downey did not have to stand trial; experience shows that the chances of a fair trial for accused Irish nationalists in England are slim.