“The Legacy Bill was described as “Pinochet-plus” by the Model Bill Team… The characterisation was a reference to Chile’s 1978 Amnesty Act. A state amnesty introduced by General Augusto Pinochet in the wake of his bloody coup.”
By Joe Dwyer, Sinn Féin Political Organiser (Britain)
This week saw many on the left in Britain reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the violent coup in Chile against the government of Salvador Allende in September 1973. Obviously, it is entirely appropriate that such anniversaries are marked.
However, the outpouring of solidarity was slightly at odds with the relative silence that accompanied the final passage of the British Government’s ‘Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill’ through Westminster this parliamentary sitting.
The comparison is not without reason, and neither is it intended to suggest that one instance is more deserving of solidarity than any other. Far from it. But it does demonstrate a notable gap in consideration and understanding that is all too common when it comes to the British left and events in Ireland.
In September 2021, at an early stage of its progress, the Legacy Bill was described as “Pinochet-plus” by the Model Bill Team, a joint effort by legal experts at Queen’s University Belfast and the Committee on the Administration of Justice.
The characterisation was a reference to Chile’s 1978 Amnesty Act. A state amnesty introduced by General Augusto Pinochet in the wake of his bloody coup only five years earlier. The act was generally considered the most egregious example of state cover-up and amnesty in recent times. Until recent weeks, that is. Now it’s been surpassed by the British Tories.
Wednesday 6 September saw the British House of Commons vote in favour of the Legacy Bill, for what was widely expected to be the last time. On Tuesday 12 September, the House of Lords passed the Bill.
The British Labour Party did oppose the legislation and, in their formal response in the Commons, recommitted a future Labour government to repealing it. An undertaking that must be upheld and honoured.
Despite this notable development however, if you were solely reliant on the myriad of left-wing platforms, channels, and commentators in Britain, you could be forgiven for entirely missing the Bill’s passage.
The internationally condemned legislation produced none of the outrage or commentary that accompanied the final stages of the Public Order Act, Overseas Operations Act, or any of the other shameful bills that have come through this British parliament.
Indeed, some notable commentators on the left appeared more exercised discussing the finer points of dangerous dogs policy than a piece of legislation that will allow the perpetrators of Bloody Sunday, or the Ballymurphy massacre, or the Springhill massacre to ‘walk’ scot-free. In a country once populated by signs that read: ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’, it used to be cynically joked that the English didn’t actually mind the dogs. It was somewhat bizarre to see it played out in real time.
Given the unrelenting cruelty of this Tory administration, and the ease at which they can push through their destructive policies, it could be said that outrage has simply become hard to sustain. But in truth, Ireland has all too often proven to be a blind-spot for the British left.
The government has deliberately reneged on an international agreement to implement legacy mechanisms agreed, by both the British and Irish governments and political parties in the North, at Stormont House in 2014. That such deliberate repudiation of international responsibility can elicit hardly any mention across the British left is almost inexplicable.
The Bill was opposed by every political party in Ireland, north and south, nationalist and unionist. It resolutely failed to receive popular support from victims and survivors of the conflict. It was denounced by human rights experts and leading international lawyers, and it was publicly condemned by officials in the US Congress, European Union, and United Nations.
The intention behind the legislation was clear to anyone paying attention. It is about giving an amnesty to British state forces in Ireland. Tory Ministers can now report to their grassroots: ‘our boys won’t see the inside of a court.’ Investigations will be blocked. Accountability will be avoided. State murder will remain covered-up and the families will continue to be denied truth and justice.
Attention has now turned, quite rightly, towards the Irish government and the call for interstate action against the British government. It has reached the stage where only an international legal case can halt such a flagrant obstruction of human rights.
Nonetheless, I would implore those on the left in Britain to re-examine what the British government has done, and is currently doing, when it comes to Ireland. When extending international solidarity westward, please don’t overlook your nearest neighbours in Ireland. The Legacy Bill marks a unilateral retrograde step in a delicately built peace process in Ireland. That should be a cause for concern for everybody on the left.
- Joe Dwyer is a Sinn Féin Political Organiser (Britain). You can follow him on twitter here.
- The Commissioner of the Council of Europe has released a statement in response to the Government’s Northern Ireland Legacy Bill stating that it will undermine justice for victims, truth seeking and reconciliation. You can read it here.