Loyalist or republican - ex-prisoners who commit crimes must be jailed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Events in Northern Ireland have been a roller-coaster of high drama since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, two years ago. Newspapers have frequently been filled with stories suggesting that the peace process is on the brink of collapse. Now, the doomsayers are on a roll once more, with headlines asking: "Is this what peace is like?" There are claims that the peace agreement is "blowing up in the Government's face".

Events in Northern Ireland have been a roller-coaster of high drama since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, two years ago. Newspapers have frequently been filled with stories suggesting that the peace process is on the brink of collapse. Now, the doomsayers are on a roll once more, with headlines asking: "Is this what peace is like?" There are claims that the peace agreement is "blowing up in the Government's face".

It is not; the peace process is as necessary as ever. Despite what some have argued, the murderous violence between loyalist paramilitaries does not show that it was wrong to release prisoners from the Maze to build confidence in the peace process. On the contrary, the violence shows why it was so essential for a new stability to be achieved.

Crucially, too, Protestants are as disgusted as republicans by this week's violence. The widespread revulsion toward the antics of of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair's Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force provides a small ray of hope. The killing of two members of the UFF has little to do with concerns about the peace agreement; it is, above all, a brutal settling of scores between two sets of violent criminals.

In this respect, it is right that the full panoply of the law should be used to crack down on the offenders. Pussyfooting - "cooking fudge", in the scornful Belfast phrase - has often been the best policy to keep the peace agreement on track. The deliberate evasions that both Mo Mowlam and her successor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, have indulged in were essential because, despite what we are seeing on the streets of Belfast today, Northern Ireland is a much more stable place than two years ago, let alone five years ago.

All of which means that now is a good time to draw a line. The locking-up of Adair and of others whose hands are bloodied with violence - the UFF ransacked the homes of dozens of UVF supporters this week - would no longer be seen, even by loyalists, as an unwarranted assault on Protestants, but as a way of taking known criminals out of the equation. Even those who, just a few years ago, might have believed that the killing of others could be seen as "standing up for Protestant rights" are now appalled by the lawless bloodshed.

Northern Ireland is not yet normal, not by a long way. Nor, however, is it a lawless corner of the Wild West, where the sheriff is an irrelevance, and where Adair and others should feel free to ride in and out of town, waving and firing their guns with impunity like latter-day cowboys.

Nobody can be under any illusion that, if Adair and others go back behind bars, the problems of paramilitary violence will be solved. Crimes can be commissioned from inside a prison cell with depressing ease. The fact that a crime can now be called a crime is, however, a step in the right direction. That applies to the punishment beatings meted out by the republican paramilitaries, just as much as to the violence dealt out by their loyalist counterparts.

For many years there has been an inclination in Northern Ireland to believe that, if the victims are nasty themselves, that somehow justifies any crime. Now, when the rule of law has started to mean something, that logic must finally be abandoned. A crime is a crime, whoever commits it and for whatever reason.

Comments