When, 22 years ago, Tony Blair gave me the task of implementing the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland I steeled myself for what everyone told me would be hard, thankless graft. “You will be kicked around all over the shop, you will never please all the parties all the time and when finally you start to please none of them, you will know it’s time to go,” a No 10 official said to me as I left to meet my fate.
In the event, I did manage to implement the agreement – devolved government, arms decommissioning, police reform and all – and it was others on my own side who conspired to cut short my time there, not the Northern Irish parties. Nonetheless, I was reminded of the original warning when last week my successor as Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, drew the ire of all the Northern Irish political parties when he proposed a statute of limitations that will end all future prosecutions, inquests and civil actions against those responsible for the killings and maimings that took place during the decades-long Troubles.
The DUP’s Paul Givan accused the Westminster government of wanting to “wipe the slate clean” on the past, abandoning victims and their families. Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said that the government was delivering “an incredibly cruel and shameless body blow to victims and survivors”. Nichola Mallon of the nationalist SDLP urged all the parties to unite to block the government’s plan. And, perhaps most worrying of all because of the party’s pivotal role, the Alliance leader Naomi Long said that if the new law was passed her party would have to think about whether or not it could take on the role of justice minister again.
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