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Forgiveness Is Bitter Pill for Some in N. Ireland
Victims of Violence Upset by Bill That Would Offer Amnesty to Their Attackers

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

MARKETHILL, Northern Ireland -- Thirty-three years after Sam Malcolmson was shot by an Irish Republican Army gunman, the wound in his side is still open and leaking fluid. He has to change the dressing constantly. He takes morphine four times a day for blinding pain caused by bullet shards lodged in his spine.

He has spent thousands of sleepless nights pacing his house on crutches, he said in an interview, often thinking of his mother, who died of a heart attack at his hospital bedside the day after he was shot.

"People tell me I should forgive and forget so we can all move on," said Malcolmson, who was a 22-year-old police recruit when the IRA ambushed him in 1972. "They are asking an awful lot."

The British government is asking for such forgiveness on the grounds that it will help seal the peace in Northern Ireland after more than three decades of sectarian violence. In London, Parliament is debating a bill that would allow fugitives who committed violent crimes during the 30-year conflict, such as the man who shot Malcolmson, to return home with guarantees that they would not serve time in prison.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that the bill was "a very difficult" but essential part of peacemaking. The measure would follow the IRA's announcement in July that it had laid down its weapons for good.

"I don't minimize the anger there will be in some quarters, or the anguish if you are the relative of a policeman in Northern Ireland who was killed," Blair told legislators. "But I also genuinely believe we need to get this out of the way and dealt with so we can get on with the really tough" task of rebuilding the province's government and institutions.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, Blair's top official for the province, said in an interview that the fugitives bill was "painful but necessary to bring closure on the past."

"The history of conflict resolution and this world is that sometimes you have to do things you ideally wouldn't want to, to bring closure," Hain said. Asked what he would tell victims' families, he said he would say that he understands the "appalling horror" of their experience but that "at least you can have the comfort of knowing that there won't be more victims like you in the future."

The measure has met ferocious opposition from people who say Blair is asking too much in the name of peace.

During debate recently in the House of Commons, David Liddington, the Conservative Party's top official for Northern Ireland issues, said the bill "undermines the rule of law" and betrays victims. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, called it "grubby and reprehensible." Commons backed the bill, 310 to 262, on a preliminary vote last month; a final vote is expected early in the new year.

Northern Ireland's war pitted so-called loyalists, who support continued British rule of the province and are mostly Protestant, against republicans, most of them Catholic, who want to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south. The war took more than 3,600 lives.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that forms the basis for the peace process provided for the release of hundreds of prisoners on both sides who had been convicted of crimes during the war. But it did not deal with people suspected of crimes who had fled -- largely to Ireland or the United States -- before they could be tried.

It is unclear how many people would be covered by the legislation. Sinn Fein, the IRA-affiliated political party, estimates the number to be a few dozen. Government officials have said it is about 70, while opponents of the bill have suggested 150.

Among the best-known people who may benefit is Rita O'Hare, Sinn Fein's representative to the United States. O'Hare was charged by British prosecutors with involvement in an IRA attack on British soldiers in 1972 but fled to Ireland before she could be tried.

She was convicted there for smuggling explosives to an IRA inmate. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, said in an interview that the British government still considers O'Hare to be a fugitive.

McGuinness said Sinn Fein supports the plan because it is "part of the political process and the peace process that have transformed the north of Ireland."

"Whenever conflict comes to an end, there will be difficult issues for people to face up to," McGuinness said, acknowledging "the understandable difficulties for victims' families."

Under the plan, fugitives suspected of committing crimes before the Good Friday agreement could apply to have their cases considered by a special tribunal. Police and witnesses would give evidence, but the fugitive would not have to attend in person. If found guilty, defendants would be given suspended sentences and probation. They would be required to serve a sentence only if they committed another crime while on probation.

While officials said the vast majority of such people are IRA members, the measure would also cover loyalist paramilitary fighters or anyone else who committed crimes "in connection with terrorism" in the province before the Good Friday agreement.

Officials said that could include British soldiers and police who sometimes covertly backed illegal Protestant paramilitary groups.

McGuinness said police and soldiers should not be covered. He said thousands of republicans have been jailed while few British security personnel have served time for their roles in the violence. "They are up to their necks in collusion, but they have never stood before a court," he said.

Nowhere are passions about the issue felt more deeply than here in southern County Armagh, a patchwork of fields blanketing beautiful rolling hills southwest of Belfast, along the border with the Irish republic. The towns and villages and muddy back roads were scenes of some of the worst sectarian fighting, and British army commandos in full combat gear still patrol the streets. Many of the killings here were personal -- victims and their killers were often neighbors.

Some family members of victims have said publicly that they support the fugitives bill and favor reconciliation over justice. But Malcolmson and a victims group called Families Acting for Innocent Relatives are strongly opposed to it.

Interviewed in the group's office, Malcolmson said he was sure he knew who shot him and his partner as they drove along a country road. Malcolmson said the man is a well-known IRA member who fled south to Ireland years ago and, under the current proposal, would be allowed to return to Northern Ireland without facing jail time.

"I could be standing in some shop with the guy who shot me. That's hard to take," said Malcolmson, constantly shifting in his chair, wincing from pain that shoots down his left leg, which is held straight by a steel brace. "They want us to just swallow hard and accept back the gunmen. If this is peace, I don't want any part of it."

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