Britain bans prosecution of past Catholic and Protestant killings in Northern Ireland
BELFAST, Northern Ireland, and LONDON — It was a warm June night in 1991 when a phone call came that would change Martha Seaman's life forever.
It was her son's fiancée, and she was crying.
"That was the beginning of a lifetime of misery," Seaman, now 80, says. "To this day, I don't think I'll ever get over it."
Seaman's first-born, Tony Harrison, was a 21-year-old British paratrooper stationed in Belfast at the height of the so-called "Troubles" — fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
What began in 1969 as a peacekeeping mission to maintain law and order evolved into the British Army's longest-ever deployment, involving a quarter-million troops over four decades. More than 3,500 soldiers, rival paramilitaries and civilians were killed.
That night, Harrison became one of the victims.
On June 19, 1991, he was off-duty, watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on TV with his fiancée on her couch in East Belfast, a Protestant area, when two masked gunmen stormed in. They shot Harrison five times in the back. He died instantly.
"He's been gone now for 32 years — 32 years of fear, misery and hard grief," Seaman tells NPR at the East London home of her surviving son, Andrew Seaman, 45.
They spread photos of Pvt. Harrison across the kitchen table. In one, 17-year-old Harrison poses in camouflage, a slightly too-big helmet askew on his head. In another, he laughs with a friend.
The military told Martha Seaman her son's killers were members of the Irish Republican Army or IRA, a paramilitary group founded in the early 20th century to resist British occupation and fight for a unified, independent Irish republic.
She and Andrew want to prosecute them. In 2016, they convinced the office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to open a probe into Harrison's death, as part of its historical investigations unit, which was established more than a decade after the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed between the British and Irish governments.
But under a new U.K. law, investigations into the deaths of Harrison and many others have now been halted.
The change affects about 1,000 families like the Seamans, whose investigations had been ongoing, says Nuala O'Loan, a former police ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
What reconciliation looks like in Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which took effect Sept. 21, limits investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints about killings and disappearances that date back to the decades of the Troubles. Perpetrators who come forward with information about any conflict-era crimes will be offered conditional amnesty, and intelligence records will be sealed.
"What I hope is that it will ultimately allow society in Northern Ireland to move on," says Jonathan Michael Caine, a U.K. lawmaker who sponsored the legislation in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.
It's been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Belfast, the main city there, is still divided by walls, gates and barbed wire. The British government, which governs the region, hopes this law can help locals put the conflict behind them. Supporters call it a key part of reconciliation.
But many victims' families, including the Seamans, say it leaves them without justice.
"There are families who still want answers," Caine acknowledges. "But what we have to recognize is that at such a distance from the end of the Troubles, the chances of evidence turning up that might lead to a prosecution and conviction is going to be vanishingly rare."
Caine says he studied truth and reconciliation programs in South Africa and the former Yugoslavia. In both those places, officials granted amnesty to perpetrators much more quickly, after the end of fighting. By contrast, this new U.K. law does so 25 years later.
It passed the parliament easily, with backing from veterans' groups.
"It benefits the government because they won't have to pay compensation," O'Loan tells NPR. "And it benefits veterans, because they can no longer be prosecuted."
The law also sunsets the possibility of civil cases involving wrongful death claims, and it prevents prosecution of soldiers who engaged in violence as part of the conflict. Only a handful of U.K. military personnel have been prosecuted for their role in the Troubles.
Yet no major political party in Northern Ireland supports the law. At least 11 separate legal challenges have been filed against it.
"To my mind, it doesn't meet our international obligations and it doesn't meet our moral obligations," says O'Loan, who serves in the House of Lords and voted against the bill.
She accuses the government of "trampling on people's trauma and pain."
"Can you imagine if you were a little child and gunmen murdered your father or mother in front of you? If you're a young teenager going out for the night and somebody planted a bomb and killed all your friends?" O'Loan asks. "People don't forgive and forget, nor is it reasonable to ask them to. There is a right to proper legal process."
Is there a statute of limitations for trauma?
Paul Crawford doesn't have to imagine what that's like. He knows.
He was a teenager in 1974, when his father John Crawford — a Catholic business owner and father of nine — was shot dead in front of the West Belfast furniture factory he ran.
"Our streets were the trenches. That's where the bombs went off. That's where the gun battles were fought," Crawford, 66, tells NPR at his home on the outskirts of Belfast.
It took Crawford more than 40 years to get answers about who killed his father, and why.
In 2016, he went to a public forum where now-elderly former members of a Protestant paramilitary, the Ulster Volunteer Force, were speaking. Some of them had done prison time. Through mediation, they ultimately admitted to mistaking John Crawford for an IRA rival, and killing him.
"Closure does not exist. You cannot bring back a dead body. You cannot regrow a lost limb. You cannot totally fix a shattered mind," Crawford says. "But what you can get is the greatest degree of resolution possible."
He now works as a trauma mediator, helping other survivors and victims seek the same degree of resolution as him.
The passage of time, and legal questions
In his case, Crawford believes the passage of time helped, rather than hindering the process — allowing his father's killers time to reflect and ultimately admit to what they did.
"There are thousands upon thousands of victims who are not going away, no matter what law they bring in," he says. "We are not going away."
Time has brought leads for Martha Seaman too. After the Good Friday peace deal, a book published in 1999 by a former police informant named Martin McGartland made a startling claim: McGartland said he was the getaway driver for the masked men who killed Seaman's son, Tony Harrison. He said police knew who the killers were too — but haven't prosecuted them.
McGartland remains in witness protection. And the investigation into Harrison's killing has been closed. The new law prevents it from being reopened.
Harrison's 80-year-old mother isn't giving up, though.
In late September, with help from the Centre for Military Justice, a London-based human rights group, Seaman and her family filed a legal case in the High Court in London, challenging the British government.
They argue their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights are breached by the new law, and they're asking for the investigation to be reopened. She's also set up a crowdfunding site to raise money for her legal costs.
"I don't have much time left now," Seaman says. "And I just want to see justice."
NPR producer Fatima Al-Kassab contributed to this story from London and Belfast.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.