One element that has been entirely absent from the Northern Ireland peace process is the ethical dimension. It is clear that paramilitary leaders can be purchased to mostly dissolve their paramilitary gangs and dispose of their weaponry for the glass beads and shiny buttons of limited temporal power, cash grants and opportunities to appoint former fighters to lucrative posts here and there along with immunity from just prosecutions. Those British intelligence operatives who handled the early negotiations with IRA leaders were pragmatic realists licensed to make deals without reference to morality, truth, victims and justice.

This kind of peace process did not occur in Spain where Spanish governments refused any beads or buttons to ETA and demanded dissolution of the gang and surrender of weaponry. Not even prisoner deals have been done. In France, Carlos the Jackal was last month given another life sentence for a 1974 grenade attack in Paris after already serving 23 years of two previous life sentences. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez – the poster boy of 1970s terrorists – will spend the rest of his life in prison for what does not amount to even 1% of the IRA Army Council’s kill count. The fact that IRA men he met at training camps in Libya are immune from prosecution must cause him to bitterly regret that he was not in the IRA and a beneficiary of The Good Friday Agreement. The American government is getting ready to execute the Boston Marathon bomber who only exploded a single device – the IRA exploded thousands of bombs and killed many people and must be relieved that they were fighting the Brits and not the Yanks. The Americans would have executed all of the IRA bombers and interned lesser suspects in Guantanamo.

During the Northern Ireland peace process, British governments allowed paramilitary leaders to continue limited killing – ‘housekeeping’ – in the areas they dominated, including executing informers, some bombings to hurry along the peace process – Warrington (with two child fatalities), Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf (with two fatalities) and Manchester – and some killings of security force members also (two community police officers in Lurgan) and the odd bank robbery. British Intelligence meetings with IRA leaders continued without interruption as these acts were perpetrated. The IRA’s Army Council members who were negotiating the deal on behalf of the IRA had been granted immunity from any prosecutions long before, unlike their fodder volunteers, and this must have emboldened their actions. The spectacle today of victims having recourse to civil actions to try to apportion guilt and to find truth shows the degree to which governments have betrayed even the families of servicemen killed in bombings and shootings.

During all of these epoch-making events, the organisations that would have us believe that they are the guardians of morality, truth and divine revelation – Christian churches basically – have never been more united than in being struck dumb and paralysed in parsing the morality and moral hazards of this kind of peace process. What of governments betraying victims? Nothing. What of mass murderers going Scot free and avoiding just punishment for their crimes and sins? Not a homily. What of victims being denied truth and justice? Not a word. What of the rise in the political and business worlds of paramilitary godfathers whose pockets are lined with stolen monies and whose mouths are lined with lies? Nada. What of warning such public and private sinners of the need for true repentance for the salvation of their souls? Nothing but churchmen regularly lining up for selfies with paramilitaries.

Let’s get real, you say – since widespread violence has withered and since peace has slowly taken hold, what are the real ethical dilemmas? The primary dilemma need not detain us here – that insuring this peace by means of rewarding the warriors might risk more violence in the future. The issue examined here is that persons who have committed and ordered the most gravely sinful acts – murders and bombings – do not appear to view these acts as in any way sinful or evil and neither do they count the victims and victims’ relatives as in any way worthy of the truth of how and why their relatives were murdered. The paramilitary leaders and their followers have expressed pride in their campaign of violence and have sported the coloured beads and shiny buttons of their political and financial rise as proofs of society’s need to accept them as they are, proud and unrepentant. A great many voters in the community share the view that there is nothing wrong with any of this and herein lies the problem. Evil is brazenly proud of itself.

True repentance is owed primarily to God our creator and to our neighbours. True repentance has always involved recognition of sins or evils committed and sorrow for same, allied to reparation to victims – the very least reparation is the truth. In Judaism and in various branches of Christianity, some form of confession of sins has always been required. Sinners must be warned that whatever prizes come their way in this life, following their death they must stand before their creator with clean hands and pure conscience and that they risk their eternal souls if they arrogantly presume that their many killings, bombings and victims no longer matter. Strangely, churches appear to have been slain in the spirit by the peace process and the unprecedented political rise of paramilitaries. Analysis by Christians of any ethical dilemmas and hazards in this process is entirely absent.

At the single greatest gathering of IRA paramilitary leaders recently – the funeral of Martin McGuinness – the catholic church avoided the duty to warn them and their followers of the need for whole and unconditional repentance, full truth and reparation to victims. Instead church leaders courted popularity by adding their voices to ill-informed praise for Martin McGuinness. The saddest and to me the most shocking aspect of McGuinness’ final weeks was that he decided to go to meet his creator without offering his victims at the very least the reparation of truth. It would be less shocking that McGuinness did this if he had disowned his catholic beliefs and avoided the company of clergymen, but in fact he did neither and it begs the question – how was he not advised by the great many Christian clergy who seemed to revel in his company of the need to face his victims and offer them the truths they were demanding? None of this reparation could even have cost him any part of a prison sentence since British Intelligence had long ago secured his immunity from prosecution. Was he wrongly advised?

The greater moral risk now is that very many young people, including those currently being wooed by dissident groupings, must view violence, killing and bombing and a paramilitary lifestyle as liable to lead to upward social and political mobility and to substantial financial rewards. Churches have ceased to preach about the sins, injustices and moral responsibilities involved in a true peace process. While paramilitaries stand to lose their eternal souls, the Christian churches have lost their capacity to tell us right from wrong. What then is the purpose of salt that has lost its taste?

The day will surely come when Sinn Fein purges from its ranks those who have been involved in paramilitary violence. The reasoning offered at this future date will be that paramilitaries have had their reward – immunity from prosecution and freedom to live lives outside prisons. There is no need whatever for those who have killed and ordered killing to continue to seek to inhabit the ranks of peaceful democratic parties. It will not be morality or integrity that will fuel Sinn Fein’s late decision to dump the godfathers, but naked ambition for power and privilege unobstructed by the millstones of yesteryear. That, I’m afraid, will be as good as it gets.

[First published in The News Letter, Belfast, May 6th, 2017]