Serving under a single standard

It is rare to read two articles on opposite pages of the same journal that, with equal lucidity, set out opposite views on the same issue. The journal in question was The Spectator (16 March). The journalists were the novelist Lionel Shriver and the commentator Douglas Murray. The topic was whether British soldiers should be prosecuted for their part in Bloody Sunday. Both pieces were written shortly before the decision to prosecute one former soldier was announced. 

Lionel Shriver’s article represented perfectly my own initial emotional reaction to the issue. In order to make a better future possible, the Good Friday agreement needed to draw a line under the past. As a result, paramilitaries on both sides who had been guilty of the most appalling atrocities were set free, and fresh prosecutions were not undertaken, however strong the evidence. Shriver’s point was that, if this amnesty was granted to terrorists, it should have been granted to the army as well. To continue to prosecute former soldiers, but not former terrorists, would be an insupportable double standard.

Shriver seems ambivalent on the whole issue of the Good Friday agreement. “Whack your wife with a rolling pin in the heat of an argument,” she wrote, “and you’re put away for life; intentionally slaughter your fellows in cold blood, and as long as it’s for a ‘cause’ you’ll be back home in time for tea.” But elsewhere, she wrote: “I realise that only the inclusion of prisoner release made the agreement possible.”

So was the bargain acceptable, for all its moral compromises? Along with, I suspect, most people in Britain, I think it was. Even if Shriver thinks it wasn’t, she would say – correctly – that this is not the point at issue here. The question is one of double standards. Either everyone involved should have received an amnesty, or none of them.

Douglas Murray is not a commentator with whom I normally agree. An enthusiastic neo-con, he has made extremely provocative contributions to debates about multi-racialism and the Middle East, as well as organising a puerile competition in The Spectator for the most offensive poem about the President of Turkey. One might expect him to be forthright in defence of any action undertaken by the British army. He is not.

The fact that, on the opposite page from Shriver, Murray reached a different conclusion is significant for another reason. He knows whereof he talks. He attended almost every hearing of the Saville inquiry and has written a book about it. His conclusion is damning. “Having watched all of the Bloody Sunday shooters testify,” he writes, “I can say with certainty that they include not only unapologetic killers, but unrelenting liars.”

He went on to reveal that the inquiry had promised immunity from further legal action to all witnesses who told the truth about their actions on Bloody Sunday. In that case, the soldiers were offered an amnesty, but refused to take it. They might say (and do say) that they did nothing wrong and had no crimes to admit or conceal. However, if both Lord Saville and the DPP think otherwise, the soldiers should no longer be entitled to expect protection from the law. That was a risk they implicitly accepted at the time.

There is another issue involved in this debate, which Murray mentioned in passing, and Shriver did not mention at all. Is it right that British soldiers should be judged by a different standard than the IRA or UDA? Murray’s evidence says that double standards are not being employed in this instance. But, if they were, would that be justifiable?

The conduct of armed forces in war is a moral morass. It always has been, and the position has been complicated by the advance of human rights legislation and the prevalence of informal armies that do not represent any nation state. In both World Wars, each side routinely sank the merchant shipping of the enemy, deliberately targeting civilian merchant seamen. Aerial bombing is likely to result in the deaths of some civilians, maybe of many thousands of civilians. As for Hiroshima…

Despite such uncomfortable realities, I believe that most people see a distinction between these actions and an individual soldier deliberately killing an unarmed non-combatant who poses no direct threat to him. It is the same distinction that makes the deliberate killing of prisoners-of-war both morally unacceptable and a crime. If it was the case – which the Saville inquiry concluded that it was – that some paratroopers on Bloody Sunday killed in exactly that way, then they have committed a crime for which they should be held accountable.

Most people accept, often against their own emotions, that compromises sometimes have to be made that result in absolution for people they have been used to thinking of as terrorists and murderers, for the sake of the future. We also understand, however reluctantly, the truism that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But I don’t accept that those who serve under the British flag should have carte blanche to kill anyone they feel like killing, or should escape the consequences if they do. I will lean over as far backwards as I can without falling over to make every allowance for circumstances, but not to the extent of denying irrefutable evidence.

Lionel Shriver asks how the British army will ever gain new recruits if the country shows it is willing to hang them out to dry later. I would ask whether we really want to send a signal to potential recruits that they will be allowed to kill with impunity.

If a truly rigorous inquiry had taken place decades before Saville, which it should have done but perhaps could not, many more soldiers would almost certainly be facing trial. Now, although it is just one soldier, that is better than none. Even if double standards were involved here, which I do not think they are, that should be irrelevant. When it comes to the conduct of British soldiers, there should only be one standard: the standard under which they serve.