As recent events in Northern Ireland have shown, sometimes it is necessary to do wrong in order to do right and we need to understand better this moral paradox when judging politicians, says Dr Stephen de Wijze.
The debate about how Northern Ireland deals with its dreadful past has been building for many months. Indeed it is easy to forget amid the recent high profile arrest and subsequent release without charge of Gerry Adams in connection with the death of Jean McConville, that earlier this year we also saw the aborting of John Downey’s trial, the IRA man accused of involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park Bombings.
Northern Ireland’s recent history illustrates the difficult choices that invariably have to be made between justice and peace in the aftermath of all wars, but especially civil wars. South Africa, under Bishop Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine, famously convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and some have argued that this approach may be useful and necessary to bring closure to the Northern Ireland conflict.
Commentators such as Simon Jenkins lament the way that political interests undermine the integrity of the judicial system, and the way that amnesties became part of the peace process in Northern Ireland. On the other side of the fence, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain says the peace we have seen in Northern Ireland over the last decade would not have been possible without such deals. He insists that it is “a fundamental truth” that because of the amnesty deals we now have a hugely positive change in the country, an almost “universal peace and stability that has replaced the hideous horror of the past”.
What are we to think of these polarised views concerning the place of politics in the judicial system? Both claims seem to be plausible yet they stand in stark opposition to each other. The outrage felt by the victims that justice has been thwarted is clearly justified, yet it is indisputable that the recent peace in Northern Ireland is something we should all accept as a significant success which has prevented further terrible suffering and saved many lives.
The problem is the unsophisticated way in which the issue is set out and discussed in the media. What is needed is sensitivity to, and an understanding, of our complex moral reality, which is best expressed in recent ‘dirty hands’ literature.
Our moral reality sometimes throws up situations where we are forced to do wrong in order to do right. We need to commit moral violations (or renege on a cherished moral principle) in order to bring about a lesser evil. Our moral reality is not always a choice between good and bad options. Often, and this is especially so in politics, the choice that faces us is between bad and worse. When this happens what we need to accept and understand is that a less than perfect outcome is the best we can do, and then find a way to live with it.
It is important to point out here that this does not mean we countenance immorality or use the dirty hands theory to justify unnecessary immoral actions. Rather, we use the theory to help us understand that the victims who will not get justice are right to feel aggrieved and that some compensation should be offered to them.
But it also means we understand that those who brokered the deal for amnesties in Northern Ireland, if done in good faith, did what was necessary to bring about the lesser evil. For this they ought to be praised, but also reminded that there was a terrible cost for so acting, even though it was the right thing to do in the circumstances.
Jenkins is wrong to simply condemn Hain and those who defend the amnesty process. And Hain is wrong to think he has no moral dirt from enabling people to escape justice. The key insight from dirty hands theory is that by doing wrong to do right, politicians and commentators need to acknowledge and understand that certain actions leave moral pollution in their wake, even when such actions were fully justified and even obligatory.
Hain is wrong that he need not offer an apology. He should understand that he has participated in a wrong that needs to be acknowledged as he has let down the victims and their families. But we also need to understand that his apology would be made in the context of actions that were for the greater good even though they prevented justice from taking place.
Such tough and difficult choices were done for us, and those making the hard decisions should also be admired and praised. These claims undoubtedly sound paradoxical, confusing and difficult to understand, especially if one is wedded to the view that actions can and must always be either right or wrong.
But our complex moral reality, as portrayed in literature throughout the ages and more recently in philosophical works, shows that there is no such simplicity and if we are to correctly judge our politicians we need to hold this more sophisticated view.
Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary and correct to do wrong in order to do right. Here politics must interfere with the judicial process.
But in so acting there can be no avoiding of the moral pollution that arises. And we need to acknowledge and understand this moral paradox when judging politicians and compensating those who have been harmed by these actions.