I am glad to return to the issue of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. As a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and as a member of the DUP, I can say that this issue is close to the heart of my party. That being the case, I am in wholehearted support of ensuring that the issue of victims is no longer shunted to one side — and, more importantly, that the victims receive the recognition and assistance that have for too long been denied them.
There are few in this Chamber — indeed, there are few in this Province — who can say that they have no idea of the pain caused by terrorist violence. The sad reality is that almost everyone over the age of 21 can point to some stage in their lives when the reality of the Troubles hit them in a personal way. Many of us have lost loved ones and friends, who will never be forgotten.
There are those, however, who are suffering the effects of the Troubles as much today as they were some 20 years ago: wives taking care of husbands who were injured physically and who are still struggling to make ends meet as they try to bring up a family along with the pressure of being carers. Too many families have been torn apart by not only the death of a parent as a result of the Troubles but by the associated problems of raising a family single-handedly. Women are bringing up children on a small wage, trying to put them through school and even university with their income halved. I know of young people who lost a parent due to the Troubles some years ago and who are still paying off their student loans because their single parent could not afford to put them through university. I welcome the £36 million that has been set aside for the victims and which will go some way to addressing their financial needs.
The awful fact is that very little was done at the time to help those families. For too long we have sorrowed with them without helping practically, which is so often what is needed and which is needed today. My cousin, who had been married for just three months, and his friend were murdered on the Tyrone border some 30 years ago. He and his friend, a Roman Catholic, served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. They were murdered side by side. The Northern Ireland Office at the time made a paltry sum available to my cousin’s friend, who had three children, one of whom was disabled — £3,500. That was all that was left to her to raise that family.
Living on a shoestring does not come close to what so many similar families had to do to survive. That scenario, in varying degrees, was multiplied thousands of times across the Province. As well as having to deal with the pain of having loved ones ripped away, there was also the financial worry. As well as having to care for a now-disabled spouse or child or mother or father, there was now the worry of having to survive without that wage coming in. There are those who might cynically say that giving money now will not make any difference to the pain and struggles of 20 and 30 years ago. That is simply not true. There are many families still paying off mortgages; many people who, were their partners still with them, would have been able to retire at the proper age; many children who would not still be paying off a student loan had their dad been working and able to help them financially. I know of young people who have just finished university courses — indeed, some of them are in work — and they are still paying off student loans.
Those people still feel the effects of the Troubles. The moneys that were set aside for victims must be allocated retrospectively, enabling those people to rise above their experiences and gain at least a little financial freedom, if not emotional freedom.
I know who the victims are. The people whom I represent and who speak to me know who the victims are. We also know who perpetrated the terrorist violence over the years. I am aware of many families who are still affected by the mental scars of events witnessed during the Troubles: partners and children who are coping with mood swings, afraid of banging the door, or making other sudden noises, lest they bring back difficult memories for their partners, fathers or mothers. Many men and women worked hard, and yet they are now unable to work at all due to psychological problems caused by the atrocities of the Troubles.
Those people paid the ultimate sacrifice, and that cost is still being met. It is past time that that was recognised and addressed. My party, and OFMDFM, are pushing for accelerated passage in an attempt to take those first steps that should have been taken so many years ago. The longer that proper recognition and support is held back, the longer those men and women will continue to struggle emotionally, physically and financially, without the support that they should be receiving from their community.
“We will remember them” is an oft-used phrase. However, that is not merely a phrase — it means more than that: it is a promise. When uttered, it is a promise to do more than just think of the victims once a year. It is a promise to remember and care for their families and to acknowledge the mental scars and psychological battles that some of them still fight today, some 30 years later. It is a promise that I have uttered and will do all in my power to fulfil. I hope that other Members of a like mind will do the same.
I support the Bill to show my support for the victims of the Troubles: physical victims, emotional victims, the bereaved, and those who live every day in the knowledge that something is missing from their lives — something stolen. That sense of loss can never be replaced by money, but it can be lessened if they receive the support that they should have had for many years. I support accelerated passage and I urge the rest of the Assembly to do so. In doing so, they will show their support for the real victims of the Troubles.
Go raibh maith agat. I support accelerated passage, as I did in the meeting of the OFMDFM Committee. We have reached an important stage in respect of the particular role of the commissioners. At the time of the announcement of the appointments, everybody spoke of that role, of the importance of moving on, and said that at least the victims’ commissioners designate had been appointed. It was stated at that time that legislation would be required to bring the commission into effect.
It was also accepted by most as important that the four commissioners would represent different strands; that they could each reflect the views of their respective communities. The commissioners each operate in different ways, and victims would perhaps feel more comfortable dealing with someone that they knew, or who represented their own point of view — that would be the variation.
What the Member has said causes me some concern. Throughout this process, we have been assured that there would be no attempt to Balkanise or pigeonhole the individual appointees in any way. We were assured that they would represent the needs of all the victims and survivors in a united and collective manner. I am concerned, therefore, by what the Member seems to be suggesting now. It is not necessarily in the best interests of those individuals who have been appointed to the designate roles to be expected to serve particular groupings. I urge the Member to clarify his comments.
If the Member had listened, she would have heard me say that the system will allow the victims to talk to someone who understands their personal situation, but that each of the victims’ commissioners designate would deal with the issue as a whole. I was trying to highlight how victims would view and approach the commissioners.
Each brings his or her skills to the job so that four different experiences will be applied. It is important that that role has been given to the victims’ commissioners designate and that they can get on with the job as quickly as possible. This has become urgent because of the delays that have occurred and because, under direct rule, there was insufficient progress. However, now that the Assembly is operating, we can respond more quickly.
During the meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on 5 March 2008, there was lengthy discussion of the issues raised — indeed, the Ministers and junior Ministers who attended took quite a while to get through it all. The Committee met in closed session so that members could ask questions and deal with issues that they considered relevant without having to worry about how the media reported them. One of the problems that has dogged us all along is how the media has presented the issue. Therefore it was important that Committee members could ask questions and that the Ministers could responded in as much detail as possible. Most Committee members supported accelerated passage for the Bill because they were keen for the commissioners to get down to work.
As a Member said earlier, one of the victims’ commissioners designate had complained on a television programme a few nights earlier that he could not get on with the job because the legislation was not in place. At least one Minister said on that programme said that she would move heaven and earth to ensure that the necessary legislation was enacted for the commissioners. She said that she would get to work the next day to ensure that there would be no further delay and that she was surprised that the legislation was not in place. That was said in a very public domain, and we expected that all parties would support the legislation and enact it as soon as possible.
It is dangerous to play party politics with the issue in order to cause delay. I realise that the Alliance Party considers itself as the opposition, even though it was vocal in trying to get the Assembly up and running. However, it should not see its role solely as one of opposition. When a beneficial measure — such as accelerated passage for this Bill — will deliver what the Alliance Party asked for in the first place, that party should facilitate that measure and assist in progressing it. An opposition does not have to oppose everything merely on principle.
Let us move forward. Accelerated passage will put the commissioners in place: they will report to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister; and the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will respond to the Committee. This is not a single event: it is an ongoing process. When the commissioners are up and running, they will want to make changes and variations.
Victims, too, will want to raise issues and it is important that we respond to them. The process should be victim-led. In the past, one of the difficulties was that such structures were set up without victim capacity. It is important that victims can work with the commissioners and deal with the issues. Families should have a forum in which they can become involved; they should have a voice that they feel is listened to and responded to.
We should have no further delay. Accelerated passage is the correct way to deal with this issue. As was said before, accelerated passage has often been used in less urgent situations. When I was Chairperson of the Finance Committee, we dealt with five Budget Bills — I had not realised that it was so many — that had been a year in the planning but which still needed accelerated passage to ensure their progress through the Assembly, despite the Committee’s reservations.
Accelerated passage should be used only in urgent cases. The Victims and Survivors Bill is urgent, as we need to give the commissioners the legislation to enable them to get on with their work. We should all get behind the process to ensure that victims have their cases heard and to get the necessary response.
I find myself in an unexpected position, because I did not envisage, almost a year after the restoration of the Assembly, discussing whether we should have a victims’ commission rather than a commissioner. I had envisaged discussing victims’ issues, many of which we should be debating and on which are missing out due to the process that we are now undertaking. We could have been discussing the funding’s administration and who should draw down on it; for example, how much of it should go to statutory agencies and how much should go to the real victims in the Province. Furthermore, we could have been discussing the appointments’ process, which, because it is the subject of a possible legal case, we are therefore bound not to discuss in great detail. Nevertheless, related questions must be answered.
On several occasions in the past year, members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister were told that the appointment of a commissioner was imminent. Then, all of a sudden, we found out through media channels that commissioners were to be appointed. As far as I am aware, unless the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson know something different, that proposal was never brought before the Committee. Since restoration, the point has been reached at which the public — and the victims — have become totally frustrated with the process, and that is why, in one sense, I am glad that the matter is coming to a head and that some degree of progress is being made. It is not the progress that I had anticipated, but at least we are moving forward.
Bertha McDougall’s work has been recognised here, among the wider public and among many of the victims. The difficulty is that no progress has been made on Bertha McDougall’s recommendations, and the new commission has no responsibility to advance any of the proposals contained in her report.
That is categorically not the case. OFMDFM is currently engaged in preparing a comprehensive strategy that will incorporate many, if not all, of the recommendations. That strategy will then be put out to consultation. There have been discussions with victims’ groups about that strategy, and those discussions will continue. OFMDFM is committed to proceeding with Mrs McDougall’s recommendations and will do so.
I thank the junior Minister for that clarification. Obviously, the situation has changed since the First Minister and the deputy First Minister gave evidence to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, where its members were told that any new commissioner would have no responsibility whatsoever to progress any proposals from Bertha McDougall’s report. I hope, therefore, that we shall now make some progress. Those evidence sessions were recorded by Hansard.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it right for a Member, deliberately and persistently, to make statements that do not stand up to scrutiny? The Member should get the minutes of his Committee’s meetings, read them, and show me where what he claims was said happened. It did not happen, as he knows well.
Some victims are also concerned about the appointment of the commissioners. Let us be clear: one of those commissioners has been described as being the sister of an IRA volunteer. I recall one Member saying earlier that a commissioner should not deal with one group or another. However, it is clear that that will be the way of it. Some victims and victims’ groups will not have any dealings with one of those commissioners. That is the reality as we proceed, and it is an issue that concerns me greatly.
The appointment of that person raises several questions about the definition of a victim and of how that will be dealt with. Mr Moutray raised that issue earlier, saying that in his mind he was well aware of how a victim should be defined. I am also quite clear about that definition. I know in my own mind what a victim is, or what I believe a victim to be. The difficulty is that it is not defined in the proposed legislation. The definition that is accepted by Mr Moutray and others may be different to that which is contained in the legislation, and I have huge concerns about that.
I, and many others in the constituency that I represent, are concerned that the innocent victims and the real victims in the Province will be considered to be on the same level as the perpetrators of violence and those who created many victims in Northern Ireland. I therefore have a huge concern about that aspect of the Bill. When we were presenting the legislation, and the amendments to it, why did we not go the full way and define a victim properly?
I have several concerns about this matter. First and foremost is that we are in danger of treating victims as though they are some kind of political football, and we must avoid that if possible.
We must also be careful not to use accelerated passage at the drop of a hat. If it were used repeatedly, it would show complete disrespect for the Assembly, its Committees and its structures. There are reasons why we have First and Second Stages and why we ask Committees to examine the details of any Bill. It is also anti-democratic to rush matters through the House in such a fashion. The debate has raised a number of issues, and several Members have informed the discussion. We have not yet addressed some issues that we should have, such as grants and how and by whom funds are drawn down.
I was unaware previously of issues to do with the number of commissioners. Apparently, the proposed legislation imposes no limit on the number of commissioners that can be appointed. We have not had a proper discussion about whether there should be four or five, or one or two — the commitment is open-ended.
The problem that is fundamental to the debate is the definition of a victim. Even those who wish to broaden the discussion accept that there are genuine victims — people who had absolutely nothing to do with anything, or who were the victims of mistaken identity. Surely they are in a different category to people who were involved in some way. We ought to look after those victims differently.
If this were the only time that we used accelerated passage, the situation might have been different. However, we are getting to the stage where it is being used repeatedly. Naomi Long raised that issue, and she said that accelerated passage had been used before and would undoubtedly be used again. I stress that I would be most unhappy with setting such a principle.
The final point that was made was that it is not necessary for us to proceed at this speed. It is not that we are against accelerated passage; rather, it concerns whether we need to use such a procedure on our first day back. We have taken a long time to make up our minds about certain issues, so we could have discussed it for another week or so, and involved everyone in the process.
I come back to the point about the issue being used as a political football. Some Members seem to be ambivalent about the issue of victims. Some have said that victims must simply get used to the idea of living alongside those who perpetrated the crimes. Other people around here have said that the families of the Omagh bomb victims do not represent real people, as they have a vested interest. The whole of society expects us — this Assembly and these politicians — to deal with those issues. An attempt is being made to sanitise the past and to put a whitewash over it, so that we can — ostensibly — move forward. Everyone is using their own brand of political disinfectant, and that is a fudge.
I am happy to take a formal intervention from Mr Donaldson if he wishes to make a comment. He does not have to do so from a sedentary position — he is quite capable of getting up on his hind legs and speaking for himself. I will take him on about Glenties or any other issues. What is being said now is fudge and hypocrisy. The issue is that people are trying to move things forward.
I thank the Member for giving way. When it comes to hypocrisy, no one can match that of the Members on the Ulster Unionist Benches. When they had the opportunity through the Belfast Agreement, they failed the victims miserably. When they were in Government, they failed to do anything about a victims’ commission, and they failed to introduce any proposals to help the victims of terrorist violence. Therefore, they should not point the finger at this party and at others who are doing something to help the victims. Some of us were actually involved in politics during the conflict — we are not johnnies-come-lately.
I recognise that that intervention was made by someone who is something of an expert in hypocrisy, so I am grateful to him for his advice. The Member also talked about relative newcomers to this process. On reflection, what did the people who were involved for a long time actually achieve? Nothing. When the matter comes up now, and we talk about nothing — [Interruption.]
While we are on the subject, nothing shows the failure of this Assembly more than the fact that we cannot agree on whether we need one commissioner or four. We spent ages trying to work out what we were going to do, and we could not agree on a candidate. Agreement cannot happen with just one party — it happens when we all discuss the matter. It is about inclusivity, and not about some sordid backroom deal that is agreed in Portugal or wherever. Agreement can be reached when all parties can participate in the discussion.
By the way, that deal was done in Lisbon, Portugal and not Lisburn, Lambeg. We cannot even agree on the definition of a victim, and we should not pass it on to others to think about. I accept that it is a delicate and sensitive issue, as Members across the way said; however, it is something that we should confront and discuss. We should not leave it to others, no matter how well intentioned. We should not deal with the issue in a back room, or put it on the long finger and hope that it will go away.
It is the proper business of the Assembly to talk about such matters, to confront the issue and to provide the leadership that our society so badly needs. It is up to all politicians to deal with the issue. That is why accelerated passage is not the best way to deal with the legislation. We should have discussed the matter before now. We should have discussed it in Committee, and we should certainly be allowed to put our views forward in this forum.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
We must have openness and transparency. Mr Durkan kindly took an intervention in which I said that I accept that the DUP/Sinn Féin axis can push through anything that it wants because of its voting power. However, it will not fix our problems and address the issues of the past. If we are to move forward, we must talk the problem through and ask: who is a victim and who is not; what are we going to do about it; how are we going to look after those people; and how are we going to move forward?
We failed to grasp the opportunity that was presented by the Maze site, in its totality, to put the past behind us and to sit and ask why we cannot have a conflict transformation centre. If we are going to keep the H-blocks, why can we not display them in all their detail with the stench and all such issues? That is an important issue to confront. Why can we not have a garden of reflection or remembrance that represents all the people who were murdered and others who were targeted? Why can we not get such issues out in the open and let the people of Northern Ireland see that we are prepared to confront the past because we never want to go through such events again?
Why can we not do what the Germans do at Auschwitz, where children are shown around interpretative centres and told, “Look what man was allowed to do to man — let us not do it again”? Only if we are honest and start to confront the issues can society really move forward. That is why I am so disappointed that the two major parties are doing some sort of back-room deal on the matter. We should all be involved, because we must all take responsibility for moving forward.
In conclusion, it is not enough for us to hide behind weasel words when we talk about a victim. As far as I am concerned, victimhood is passive; it is something that others impose on a person, and that person is not involved. I have heard the argument — although I do not agree with it — that the war was a war and that the war is over. If it was a war, people were combatants — not victims; they were involved. People cannot have it both ways. There are people who genuinely, through no fault of their own, were caught up, and their lives were ruined. The whole country was ruined. We owe it to those people to find a way to move forward, and we should confront the issue, not whitewash it.
Before we move on, for Members’ information on the question of hypocrites, it may be acceptable, in parliamentary terms, to refer to the hypocrisy of various parties’ positions, but it is unacceptable, in parliamentary terms, to refer to other Members as hypocrites.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, but, as someone who served for 30 years throughout what is now known as “the Troubles”, and having seen many victims from different areas across the entire Province, I feel sad that victims are being politicised in the House. Victims have also been politicised over time in the Committee, because it is obvious that tactics were employed to delay further the appointment of the commissioners.
I have had close involvement with several victims’ groups throughout the Troubles and during my previous employment. I still have close contact with some of those groups, the vast majority of which welcome the appointment of commissioners, because they saw that the previous Interim Victims’ Commissioner — who did a fantastic job, as folks from all sides of the House have said — was dogged by being seen as being from one side of the community.
The victims’ groups that I have spoken to have certainly welcomed the appointment of the commissioners. What I and other colleagues on the OFMDFM Committee were trying to do in proposing accelerated passage for the Bill, following the appointment of the four commissioners designate, was to get them down to work as soon as possible so that they could start their work for victims.
It is sad to hear the Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea talking about a political football; it is he who is making a political football out of victims. He is being disrespectful — which is another word that he used — to many victims in the Province. For once, we should join together and agree that this Bill should be given accelerated passage, because the issue was raised by one of the commissioners designate, and it has been pointed out by a number of Members earlier today —
We have heard the honourable gentleman who wants to speak actually blackening every police officer and army officer: they were combatants, and combatants should not be condemned if they are fighting to give me my freedom.
I agree fully with what the First Minister has said, and certainly, during my 30 years of service, it was not a war that I was fighting. I was fighting to preserve this Province from anarchy on many occasions.
The issue was raised by one of the commissioners designate on a television programme, as has been pointed out by a number of folk in the House today, that in fact what the commissioners want to do is get down to work as quickly as possible. That is the reason behind the proposal for accelerated passage of the Bill. Members could argue for days about definitions and about the work of the commissioners. It is the commissioners who should be making much of the proposals, and I am sure that they will be looking for changes and amendments to the legislation to allow them to progress their work — the sooner that that is allowed to happen, the better. I support the accelerated passage of the Bill through the House.
The real reason that we are having the debate today is to clear up a mess that is entirely the making of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There are issues of accountability concerning the reasons why we are in this mess, and it is right that the Assembly is given an opportunity to discuss those issues.
There are also proper accountability issues relating to how Members take forward legislation in this House and ensure that there has been proper scrutiny. Today’s debate has probably been more like the equivalent of a Second Stage of a Bill — a debate that will most likely be happening tomorrow — rather than one on the merits, as the case may be, of accelerated passage.
There has been quite a lot of discussion today about delays over the issue of the appointment of a victims’ commissioner, or commissioners, and the importance of moving ahead on that. The reason for the delays has been the inability of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take decisions. Let us not be under any illusions about that. They have been in office, wrestling over these important issues, for more than 10 months. We were promised decisions time after time, and each time we were promised, what we got instead was more and more delay.
I think there has been plenty of delay; you are the experts on it. There have been 35 years of delay in this country, through the actions of some parties in this Chamber, whenever there have been opportunities to move ahead with self-government.
The second reason for this mess is that, rather than agreeing to appoint one individual, the First Minister and deputy First Minister could not agree on whom to appoint. Rather than showing leadership and demonstrating to the people of Northern Ireland the ability of the two main traditions here to come together and bridge their differences in the interests of good governance, what we see is a fudge, whereby instead of appointing one individual, we appoint four. In doing so, an almighty bit of confusion was created, which we are now struggling to deal with. That confusion has spread to such an extend that we have members of the parties of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister referring to a commission, when no commission actually exists, because the Assembly has not passed the legislation creating the commission. All that we have is four commissioners designate — the commission is still to come.
Similarly, we have had an almighty row in the Chamber today over the issue of the definition of what a victim actually is. I make a prediction — with a heavy heart — that, rather than having a single definition of what a victim is, thereby allowing our society to move forward, we are going to end up with four different definitions, if not more, given the precedent that has been set so far.
My colleague Naomi Long has set out the basis under which accelerated passage is supposed to be considered. Looking at what has happened in the past, we can see examples of the appropriate use of accelerated passage, mainly for Budget Bills and parity legislation, where there are genuine consequences if the Assembly does not follow suit. Policy issues may arise with some pieces of legislation, but the Assembly’s overriding policy is to try to ensure that social-security issues in Northern Ireland are kept on a par with the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom and that funding proceeds on that basis. That has been a fundamental principle for 60 years. In those instances, there is not a huge policy issue at stake.
Accelerated passage is not meant to be used for matters involving fundamental issues of public concern. People may argue that this is simply a tidying-up exercise and we should go along with accelerated passage because there are not any fundamental issues to discuss. I beg to differ — there are fundamental issues that have to be discussed in respect of how the commission is going to be established.
First of all, the commission involves a major change from how consideration of such appointments happened previously, and we need to take that on board. We now have a situation where, unlike other commissions such as the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland or the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which have a full-time chief commissioner and other commissioners on a part-time salary, we are now going to have four co-equal commissioners on similar salaries. There is a lack of clarity in respect of how that commission is going to operate in practice. Those are major issues that need to be discussed.
There are also issues regarding the budget for the commission, and whether that money would be better spent on meeting the actual needs of victims and providing services to them, as opposed to being spent on ever more administrative costs. I thought the Assembly was trying to cut down on administrative costs.
Perhaps the most fundamental issue of all — Francie Molloy let the cat out of the bag — is the fear of the Balkanisation of the commission. The people of Northern Ireland expect a coherent response from the commission to the needs of victims, so that the commission pushes in the one direction and all victims’ groups react to a single commission. If we have a situation in which different groups — whether as a result of perception or of reality — see particular commissioners as appealing to their constituency, we will have a disaster on our hands. That is the fundamental question that needs to be analysed. I maintain that having a proper Committee Stage creates the opportunity for those issues to be discussed.
The deputy First Minister today failed to comply with the terms of Standing Orders in providing the rationale for accelerated passage. Indeed, we have had confirmation that there are no real consequences of delaying the Bill — the only real consequence being in relation to the distribution of funds, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not yet in a position to do that in any event.
It was suggested that one reason that this matter must be progressed is because of comments that were made on a television programme by one of the commissioners designate. However, that matter was addressed the following day in a statement from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which stated that there was not actually a problem.
I do not know why the Back-Bench Members of those parties are still banging on about an issue that their ministerial colleagues have already addressed. Perhaps they need to look at their internal co-ordination.
In response to Dr Farry’s colleague Naomi Long, I made it absolutely clear that there are problems. The OFMDFM statement said that there was nothing to stop the commissioners from talking to victims. However, there are a lot of other things that they are unable to do, which we clarified to the Committee, and which, unfortunately, Ms Long has forgotten about. We made it clear why we are asking for accelerated passage, and one reason is the Data Protection Act 1998. However, there are other issues, and that is why we need the support of the House to move the matter forward quickly. Apart from that, do the victims not deserve it? Why is the Alliance Party prepared to delay the matter further, when it called for a decision to be made? It is delaying the issue, not us.
If the victims of Northern Ireland are as deserving as Mr Donaldson says — and I accept that they are — why have we had a 10-month delay and 10 months of fudge? Why have we had 10 months of inability to make decisions?
The Alliance Party believes that the House and the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister deserve the opportunity for a proper discussion because major issues must be resolved. There has been a major shift in the goalposts. We have moved from a single commissioner to a commission made up of four individuals. There are concerns right across society as to how that will operate. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister do not grasp the cynicism with which large chunks of the population of Northern Ireland greeted their decision to appoint four individuals, rather than one individual. Many victims’ groups are cynical about that. They view it as — yet again — a cause for delay and a diversion of resources, rather than addressing the fundamental issues at stake.
If we are to argue that this is an exceptional case, there is one aspect of “exceptional” that could be considered — the inability of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to agree, instead presenting us with a mess. In that office up until now, there has been a failure to do anything other than find the lowest common denominator of agreement, and this is not in any way exceptional. That office has failed to address the issue of what measures it will take to avoid such situations.
Mr Durkan was concerned that the issue may well be a precedent for the future. Departments may take so long to address policy issues that they will come running to the Assembly looking for it to rubber-stamp decisions, and that is not what the Assembly is here for. It is a body of elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to provide proper scrutiny and accountability for decisions that are taken. It is about time that the Executive realise and respect the role of the Assembly in important issues.
The Committee Stage for any Bill takes around six weeks, with the option for an extension — that is six weeks for proper scrutiny. If we had started the scrutiny process when the announcement was made in January, the bill would be through the Committee Stage by now. Instead, it took almost six weeks from the announcement of the commission until legislation was produced. That situation only confirms that the decision to move from a commissioner to a commission was made on the hoof, and was not a long-term strategic decision. It was a reflection of a failure to agree, and a decision to bridge the difference and move forward on that basis. That is the reality of the situation, and the Assembly should not be party to covering up the mess in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I listened with great interest to the debate. It was appropriate to end with a contribution from Stephen Farry, who talked about the ongoing consistent failure of the First Minister and me to agree on anything. He would not be sitting in his seat today if the First Minister and I, and others, had not agreed to put the institutions in place.
Lo and behold, not only did we do that but we managed to agree a Budget and a Programme for Government.
The Assembly has heard enough nonsense from the Member today. The First Minister and I also agreed the review of public administration, which was one of the biggest decisions of the past 10 months. While the Member was eating his Christmas pudding, the First Minister and I were at Stormont Castle deciding on a way forward for victims and survivors. It does not behove the Alliance Party to tell Members about the cynicism of the people of the North of Ireland. They voted for Sinn Féin and the DUP, and it grates on the Alliance Party that not enough people voted for it to put it in a position to make decisions.
It is important that early legislation underpins the work of the commission. Members who spoke today agreed that progress on work in that area is of the utmost importance. Therefore, the legislation must proceed without further delay. Important work must be done, and I urge the Assembly to support the motion for accelerated passage. The strong panel of commissioners must be supported in their work as advocates of victims and survivors. Their views are needed to shape services and to improve the delivery of support to victims and survivors.
The commissioners designate can undertake only preparatory work. The commission must be able to operate fully as a matter of priority. Go raibh maith agat.
I also wish to address Mr Ford’s point of order on the requirements of Standing Order 40, to which Naomi Long also referred. As required by Standing Orders 40(4)(a) and 40(4)(b), I set out in my opening remarks the reasons for accelerated passage and the consequences of that not being granted. Standing Order 40(4)(c) requires Members “if appropriate” to explain:
“any steps … taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”
It was implicit in the case for accelerated passage in this instance that the First Minister and I do not wish to use that procedure as a matter of routine for legislation on victims and survivors, or more generally. The Bill is a narrow piece of legislation, with one substantive clause and one purpose: to replace a commissioner with a commission that will have the same powers and functions. It does not introduce any other policy change, and it is not part of a wider programme of legislation on victims and survivors. Therefore, I argue that it is not one of the cases envisaged in Standing Order 40(4)(c) for which it would be appropriate to explain steps:
“to minimise the future use of … accelerated passage”.
However, to dispel any doubt, I am happy to confirm that the First Minister and I will take any steps necessary to avoid coming back to the House to seek accelerated passage for legislation on victims and survivors. I reiterate that we do not request accelerated passage lightly. However, the process to make the largely technical changes to the legislation must be expedited. The exceptional nature of the issue was recognised by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which supported the use of accelerated passage for the Bill.
Basil McCrea talked about decisions being made behind closed doors. The First Minister and I expect to be able to discuss the detail of our draft strategy with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister soon. That will mark the beginning of the consultation process, and we will also discuss the strategy with the commissioners designate. Therefore, there is no question of decisions being made behind closed doors.
Tom Elliott and others raised a wide range of issues that I do not intend to address today, because the debate is on accelerated passage. Members will undoubtedly take the opportunity to decide on matters relating to the commission when the Bill is debated. I do not, therefore, propose to deal with the substance of those issues today.
The establishment of the commission will be a good start, and the needs of victims and survivors must be met as a matter of urgency.
Of course, some issues touch a raw nerve with many Members, and those issues will, undoubtedly, be discussed further during the process that brings the matter to a conclusion. We must respect one another’s positions. I understand how painful the process is for many people in the unionist community and for their political representatives. However, my party also represents human beings — people who have also been hurt for a long time. We have all been hurt and we have all hurt one another. We must do precisely what Basil McCrea suggested during his contribution —
No, I will not give way.
Basil McCrea pointed out that Members should not try to score political points as the Bill moves through its legislative stages. I agree; it is too important an issue for that. I appeal to everyone in the House not only to recognise the emotion that surrounds the issue but to recognise that the commission offers the only way in which to get to grips with it. As Mark Durkan rightly pointed out in his contribution, the inability to deal with victims and the past has been one of the peace process’s great failures thus far. It has been everybody’s failure. If the Assembly is prepared to recognise that collective failure, all Members have a responsibility to work together positively and constructively to find solutions to those problems. I am in favour of finding solutions. I believe that the vast majority of Members are of the same mindset. I hope that the motion will be supported.
Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Mr Adams, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr Doherty, Ms Gildernew, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McElduff and Mr Shannon
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan.
Mr Beggs, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McNarry, Mr Savage.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Ford and Mr McCarthy
Total votes 82 Total Ayes 54 [65.9%]
Nationalist Votes 33 Nationalist Ayes 21 [63.6%]
Unionist Votes 42 Unionist Ayes 33 [78.6%]
Other Votes 7 Other Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)