Redemption must not trump justice

“If guns were made for shooting, then skulls are made to crack. You’ve never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his back.”

In 1971, founding member of the Red Hand Commandos, John McKeague published ‘The Loyalist Songbook’ which cited this sectarian hate song; a prophecy if you like, as the group went on to kill 12 civilians and one of its own members, before declaring a ceasefire in 1994. 

In an official statement by the group in 2007, they stated their “sincere expression of abject and true remorse to all innocent victims of the conflict.” Just over a week ago the group reiterated its move away from violence as it set out its request to the Home Secretary to de-proscribe the group that continues to be categorised as illegal under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Despite this being a decision for the Northern Ireland Office as opposed to the Home Secretary, arriving in London suited and booted with folders under their arms helps the group portray an certain diplomatic image they understand is required for aspiration to bear fruit.

Yet, the group has insofar failed to spell out what role it hopes to play in our society should they be de-proscribed. What can they offer communities that doesn’t already exist? Will they set out to seek a mandate? Until any clarity around these questions is forthcoming it will be hard for the RHC to conjure much support outside of loyalism.

Despite the request causing outrage across many platforms, there is no doubt that ex-prisoners and ex-combatants, should be given a chance to redeem themselves twenty years after the conflict; many other ex-combatants were able to make the transition from the armalite to the ballot box then, after the Good Friday Agreement.

But for many, the redemption of ex-combatants should be secondary to justice for victims, and should not act as a forerunner.

Therefore, the real perversion of this story will out if the Red Hand Commandos be granted their request by the Northern Ireland Office to be de-proscribed before the Northern Ireland Assembly can deliver for innocent victims of the Troubles who continue to go unsupported and unheard.

The Secretary for State has less than 90 days to issue his decision. Should redemption trump justice for another time we can firmly say that our peace-process, in trying to run even before it can crawl, will have failed once more.