20 April, 2016
Kieran McEvoy doesn’t believe in standing on the sidelines.
Professor McEvoy is Professor of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s and Director of Research in the School of Law. He is recognised internationally as an authority on conflictrelated issues such as prisoners, truth, amnesties, lawyers and community justice.
As he sees it, ‘Our job is to make a difference. Queen’s is unique. It’s a Russell Group university which was in the middle of a conflict and is now playing an important role in the transition from conflict. It isn’t just a question of the University reacting to that transformation. People here have been crucial in leading or contributing significantly to different aspects of the transition.
‘This field of study is a particular strength of Queen’s. We have the organisational and institutional power to carry out some very high end research. The University is a player, rather than an observer. We’re not on the sidelines – we’re in the middle of the game.’
One of his current projects (with Professor Gordon Anthony and Dr Louise Mallinder from the University of Ulster), has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is looking at the question of prosecutions and the public interest in the Northern Ireland transition.
This project grew out of a previous comparative project he led on Amnesties also funded by the AHRC. In other societies, just like here, conversations about this issue tend to be dominated by lawyers and technical legal matters on whether there is a duty to prosecute. While such issues are important, the question of granting an amnesty affects all walks of life. It’s hugely significant for victims, civil society, ex-combatants and a whole range of actors other than lawyers.
We try to locate debates on amnesties into the much more interesting areas of politics, community attitudes, how victims felt about amnesties – moving beyond narrow, technical, dry, legal conversations and into the bigger social and political context.’
The original research began in 2007, with grant funding to conduct comparisons in five jurisdictions emerging from conflict – Uganda, South Africa, Bosnia, Uruguay and Argentina.
‘As a result we produced a range of academic material as well as accessible reports and so forth of use to the local communities affected. Now our focus is on Northern Ireland.
Here we have seen a heated debate on dealing with the past and a range of initiatives have been established. ‘The Historical Enquiries Team is probably the best known. The police officers involved are working their way through conflict-related deaths. While the quality of investigations varied over the years, some evidence is being produced which may lead to prosecutions. The reality is however, for pre-1998 murders, no-one is going to serve more than two years. If they were held on remand for a period, they may leave the court on the same day as they are found guilty. We have to ask ourselves – is this in the public interest?
There has to be a very public conversation around this issue. ‘Some people will say that we should always prosecute. Others, some victims, for example, say that what they really want is truth – the truth about what happened to a loved one and why – rather than prosecute. Both views need to be respected but we need to have a grown-up conversation about this, one that is informed by international experience, law and politics.
‘Our role as academics is to inform contentious, difficult, complicated debates like this in ways that let people make up their own minds, albeit from a position of knowledge. We narrow the space for permissible lies – that’s our job.’
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