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Justice AND Grace for Northern Ireland

A personal response to UK government proposals to ban Troubles-related prosecutions

The proposal by the Conservative government in Westminster to legislate to ban prosecutions relating to the ‘Troubles’ has achieved that rarest of things: a united position by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland. The move raises many questions.

Does devolution mean anything if a government elected mainly by English voters (with some Scots and Welsh thrown in) can legislate against the will of the elected representatives of Northern Irish people? Of course, this is not the first time devolution in NI has been overruled (it happened already under this government over abortion), but this latest proposal has received universal opposition from all parties. And, unlike in 2019 when Westminster legislated for abortion in NI (also during the Twelfth fortnight - a time when our local Assembly does not sit!), there are serious calls this time for Stormont to be recalled.

Is the government motivated, as Sinn Fein spokespeople insist, by a self-interested commitment to protect former British soldiers from prosecutions? Or, as the government claims, is its motivation a desire to “draw a line under the Troubles” and bring closure for victims and their families? It is notable that the most vocal opponents of the plan have been representatives of victims. In what sense does this move help them if it is not the resolution they want? The apparent lack of government engagement with victims groups is one of the saddest aspects of this story.

Then there’s the age-old question of what all of this means for the constitutional position of NI in the United Kingdom. It is hard to believe that English people would be happy with a similar proposal to give amnesty to criminals in England (especially if it was imposed by people outside England!) That English ministers can countenance it for Northern Ireland suggests that unequal standards are at play. Add this to the ongoing debacle of the Irish Sea protocol and the impression grows that England would really rather be rid of these six counties. Yet this is a Conservative and Unionist government. At the very least it needs to work with the people of Northern Ireland in determining matters that are so sensitive here but less so in England.

But, perhaps the most important question at play concerns justice. Victims who have longed to see those who murdered and maimed held to account are now faced with the possibility that they will never see that happen. I am sure that most of us, if we put ourselves in their position, would understand how heart-wrenching that thought is. To think that in a democratic nation that supposedly prizes the rule of law cold-blooded murders could be given amnesty is truly disturbing.

How are Christians to respond to this situation? The political machinations are complex, as exemplified by the very different reasons given by Sinn Fein for their opposition when compared with other parties. In the Centre for Christianity in Society we are not party political and we strive to be non-sectarian when commenting on Northern Ireland. It is important, however, to recognise that soldiers and police who are acting in the name of a legitimate government that has the support of the people cannot be equated with terrorists. Both should, however, be held to the standards of truth and justice. Anyone who acts outside the law should be subject to due legal process.

This principle of justice is universally recognised by international courts and transnational organisations. It is, of course, entirely consistent with biblical principles. As is the idea that the State has a legitimate authority to uphold justice and punish those who do wrong. This God-given authority is clear in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, as is the Christian responsibility to live as good citizens subject to proper authorities. We can only resist the authorities when they attempt to force us to act in a way inconsistent with our loyalty to the highest authority, who is God (as was the case in Acts 5:29). It is my view that this can only ever mean non-violent resistance – refusal to do what is wrong or to stop doing what God commands whilst speaking truth to those in power – and never violent revolution. Other Christians have reached a different conclusion for reasons that cannot be discussed at length here.

Justice in society is a biblical principle. But there is another principle that sits closely alongside it. Indeed, in the same chapter where the apostle Paul explains the responsibility of human authorities, he also describes our duty to love others (see Romans 13:8ff.). The section about the role of authorities is also preceded by verses that command us not to take revenge for wrongs done to us personally, but to leave room for God’s vengeance (Romans 12:14-21). Reading through the chapter division, we realise from Romans 13 that one way in which God takes vengeance against wrongdoers is through the State, although his ultimate judgement will be direct, personal and total when Christ returns in glory. In the meantime, our calling is to live as good citizens and to repay evil with good, blessing those who curse us.

Without justice there is no gospel. Only when we stand before God as sinners can we be declared just by God and that only on the basis of the justification paid for by Christ through His cross. Indeed, Christians might wonder where those who do not acknowledge God as the giver of moral standards get their concept of justice from. For us, it flows from the fact that there is good and evil, right and wrong, because there is God and his will as the standard of good and right. But the gospel calls us to leave ultimate justice in the hands of God and never to take on ourselves personally to judge those who wrong us. Governments will disappoint us. Injustices and miscarriages of justice will happen. God will sort this out in the final analysis. Waiting is difficult, but never in vain. God will hold to account both those who do wrong and those who had authority to punish them but failed to do so.

But the hard call of the gospel is to trust in God for justice and to embrace the grace of God that justifies us. When we encounter his grace we do not neglect injustice – indeed, our awareness of wrong and sin is heightened – but we have a principle that transcends it. We are freed to love even those who position themselves as our enemies and to seek to bless them in ways that will surprise them and may even lead them to repentance. Hard? Yes. But impossible? No. Because God enables us by his Spirit. Hard? Yes. But also essential, for those who receive God’s forgiveness do so with the commitment to forgive those who wrong them (Matthew 6:12). That forgiveness may be faltering and incomplete, but it is part of the gospel.

And then there is the thorny concept of reconciliation. A word that has been spoken again in the Northern Ireland context as this government proposal has been defended and criticised. It is a biblical concept, of course. God reconciles us to himself in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20). But this reconciliation depends on forgiveness, and forgiveness depends on repentance, and repentance depends on the acknowledgement of the truth. Truth – repentance – forgiveness – reconciliation. That is the economy of grace. It is how it works with God and how it must work between people. As Christians we should long for reconciliation in Northern Ireland and we should be active peacemakers, but we cannot have true reconciliation without the truth.

The tragedy of the proposals brought by the Conservative government is that they claim that their approach will allow the truth about killings to be established. Without the threat of prosecution, those who committed crimes will provide details about what happened. But that is where the proposals leave it. They do not demand the kind of justice that Scripture expects human authorities to uphold for the good of all in society. But even sadder is the fact that these proposals, and at least some of the responses to them, also give no space for grace and its economy. Only the gospel does that and we, as God’s people, must seize this opportunity to proclaim the gospel of grace and truth.

Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for Christianity in Society, its Directors or its Associates.

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Thanks, Paul, a very helpful and balanced approach to this issue! This last sentence: 'we, as God’s people, must seize this opportunity to proclaim the gospel of grace and truth' is the big challenge to us in this situation.

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