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Addressing the Past

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 1:15 pm, 7th November 2016

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive, so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly believes in a victim-centred approach to addressing the past and that victims and survivors should have a meaningful input to the content and design of legacy proposals; further believes that justice, truth and accountability, acknowledgement and support for victims and survivors are essential elements in a comprehensive approach to the past; notes the comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on a public phase on legacy proposals; and calls on the British and Irish Governments for an urgent, renewed effort to conclude legacy issues, including the further development of the proposed roles and powers of the Oral History Archive, Historical Investigations Unit, Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and rejects any attempts by the state, state agencies, illegal groups and others to evade justice, suppress the truth of and resist accountability for the past.

First of all, I confirm that we accept the Sinn Féin amendment, which adds a little to the motion, and oppose the DUP amendment, which changes a lot in the range of the motion.

Last week, I was talking to a senior person in one of the Governments who confirmed that they expected that, within the next few weeks, the British Government would enter the "public phase" that the Secretary of State has been referring to, whatever that means. Given that and the centrality and enduring nature of the issue, it is an important time for the Assembly to touch on and have a debate in relation to these matters so that on the far side of the public phase, whatever that might be, the outcomes do not once again let victims and survivors down, cause them exasperation and, most of all, cause them new and higher levels of hurt. The next few weeks will be vital in how we comprehensively and ethically deal with the issues of the past.

If we are going to deal with the issues of the past, we should try to be informed by a number of principles. First, the highest standards of justice, accountability, truth and acknowledgement should prevail. Secondly, victims should be consulted and be involved in and participate in the design of any legacy proposals. Thirdly, through and beyond the legacy mechanisms, whatever they end up being, doors should not be closed to victims, not least because of a lack of proper financial support for those mechanisms. On the far side of and through those processes, we need to deal with the issues of intergenerational trauma and experience, advance national reconciliation and healing and ensure that individuals and communities get the full opportunity through those mechanisms to deal with the issues that they face.

Let us be clear: the thresholds around truth, justice, accountability and acknowledgement have been degraded from those advanced, for example, by Eames/Bradley. Each time we have entered into conversation with parties in government, we have ended up with a degradation of the strength and quality of the Eames/Bradley proposals of all those years ago. Consequently, even at this eleventh hour, I ask the two Governments and all the parties to attempt to improve and upgrade the proposals that are forthcoming in respect of dealing with the past so that the architecture of legacy measures up to the needs of the victims and survivors of the legacy of the last 30, 40 and 50 years.

I note that once again, even on this issue, we are being denied the opportunity to hear a response from any Minister, including the Minister of Justice. That is to be deeply regretted. The reason I say that is that, if we are going to navigate through the next number of weeks properly, we need to learn from the lessons of a year ago. What are the lessons of a year ago from the aborted negotiations around Fresh Start? First, this time a year ago, time was spent in the negotiations undoing the damage that was done to dealing with the past arising from private conversations between the Northern Ireland Office and the DOJ that produced, at that time, proposals that would do damage to a comprehensive way of dealing with the past. Yet, that is what we have at the moment. There have been private conversations going on for at least the last six months between the NIO and the DOJ for which the Minister of Justice refuses to account in any shape or form, at any level, to the Assembly or the people of Northern Ireland. When she is asked about these matters, she says, "Ask London".

The second lesson from a year ago is on the lack of transparency. I wait to hear from the DUP and Sinn Féin in that regard, but, when the British Government produced a second draft legacy Bill, they shared its contents in full or in part with the DUP and Sinn Féin but not with any of the other parties and maybe not even with the Irish Government, who should have joint custody and stewardship in taking this forward. Are we going to have a rerun of last year's NIO/DOJ conversations with a lack of transparency about what is coming forward?

Thirdly, we must not have what we were close to having last year: a fait accompli, where a smaller number of parties and one Government decide what the outcome is, over the heads of other parties, other Governments and, crucially, victims and survivors. I hope that there is learning in relation to all that and that those errors and fault lines of last year are not repeated.

The SDLP has said that, in writing and in person, to the two Governments and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the last number of months. On the matters that I am about to raise, we have not received any detailed or satisfactory answers. In Fresh Start, the SDLP submitted seven papers to the three Governments, some of which were shared with others. In those papers, we outlined how to upgrade the proposed legacy mechanisms and, without being exhaustive — some people, especially on the British side, will say that we are being exhaustive — these are matters that now need to be dealt with.

For example, will the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) be in statute and have full powers to talk to any person or organisation in order to interrogate thematic issues from the past? Will it have access to any and all relevant information in so doing? Will the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) be able to investigate cases that need to be investigated, rather than have its role and mandate constrained on some spurious basis, not least in collusion cases? Will the issue of funding be dealt with? Since the Stormont House Agreement, when moneys were agreed in respect of legacy, there are new and inescapable pressures in relation to Stakeknife, legacy inquest, mental health, demand for the Victims and Survivors Service, the volume of cases to go through the HIU, and the potential role of the IRG? Will funding measure up to all those needs? Will disclosure be dealt with once and for all by the British Government, not in a way to protect its self-serving interests but to satisfy the needs of truth, justice and families, victims and survivors? And so on and so forth, in respect of all the legacy matters.

In concluding, let us be clear about one of the fundamental fault lines in the legacy discussions: those who did the worst over the years of conflict, and those who know the most about the truth of all of that, have the least intention to account in relation to the legacy mechanisms. There are too many vested interests at the heart of legacy, where the interest of the few will be greater, or is in danger of being greater, than the interests of the many victims and survivors. That is the truth behind the national security issue: that the British Government do not wish to account for that which may be criminal, embarrassing, callous or brutal, that went on with their knowledge during the years of the conflict. Similarly, terror organisations may wish to share at an institutional level corporate memory of what the leadership of illegal organisations did during the years of conflict, but they will not cross the line when it comes to damage to their reputations or self-serving needs.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 1:45 pm, 7th November 2016

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

When it comes to those issues, there is one, perhaps final, chance to get it right. Let us not squander that opportunity; let us stand up unambiguously for the needs of victims and survivors.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up. I call Paul Frew to move amendment No 1.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I beg to move amendment No 1.

Leave out all after the first "proposals;" and insert "further believes that all parties should work towards an early resolution of these matters; and welcomes the Government’s proposals to consult on a way forward.".

Let me say at the outset that I agree with a lot of what Mr Attwood said, as it resonates with me. I yearn for the day when we get this issue dealt with. I am sure that every one of us has met, spoken to, or even has family members who are victims or who are involved in a victims' group. We have all met them and seen the pain in their eyes and heard it in their voices when they talk about their loved ones and how they miss them.

However, it is also a truth that not all victims want and need the same thing. That is something that we need to be very mindful of when we proceed along this path. It is also clear that, on these issues, trust has been and probably will continue to be a massive issue. In fact, it is a massive barrier to moving forward. The fact is that not all victims' groups want or need the same thing. Even within victims' groups, there are victims and survivors who do not want or need the same thing. It is a massive issue for us, the leaders, who are trying to move Northern Ireland forward, working with the UK Government. The Irish Government also have a massive part to play in this moving forward as regards their role in the Troubles. With all of that, trying to get a resolution and agreement has, to this point, proven to be remarkably difficult.

What are the needs and wants of victims and survivors? Some want truth, and that is a massive area. Some want justice, some want truth without justice and some want justice with truth. This is a massive issue moving forward. What does our party want? Our party wants a resolution to this; of course we do. We want to remove some of that pain for those people who suffer this every single day. Ultimately, however, we see that this cannot move forward without justice being upheld. Justice must be seen to be done. The rule of law must be upheld without fear or favour to anyone — and I mean anyone, whether you were part of a terrorist organisation or you were a part of the security forces and you stepped out of line and broke the law. The law is there to protect the citizens of every nation. It is important that, as we move forward, the rule of law is maintained and justice is seen to be done.

This is a remarkably sensitive area. It has proven so difficult to move forward from the ceasefires and the various agreements to now. We are edging forward, although, of course, we are not going quickly enough. That responsibility lies on every single person in this House and on every single party. That is why I am speaking to the amendment that our party put forward:

"further believes that all parties should work towards an early resolution of these matters; and welcomes the Government’s proposals to consult on a way forward."

If we go into the public sphere on this, we should let the people see what is on the minds of the Governments. Let them judge for themselves how much or how little progress has been made or what more needs to be done. That is a very important issue, but nobody in this room, whether you are in government or in opposition, should shirk that responsibility.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. The content of the motion is extremely detailed. It is an extremely constructive motion, which goes into many of the aspects that have been worked out over a number of years and which are well established for a comprehensive framework for dealing with the past. Will the Member tell the House and the public why the DUP felt the need to remove the vast majority of the content of that motion and replace it with a very short, abstract, early resolution for an issue that has been dealt with for years and which, I think, is at risk of actually offending victims and survivors in our community who are well past an early resolution of these matters?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I hear what he is saying, but this is about a holistic approach. There is detail in the motion, but it does not mention all of us working together. I am not saying for one moment that this stuff should not be done. I am not saying that this stuff should not be in our thoughts or in the motion. What I am saying is that the issue has to be moved forward with a holistic approach. Everyone must be brought along and come with us. Whilst there is a lot of good in all this, it has to be the Fresh Start Agreement. I am not too sure whether the Member wants another intervention, but would he like to explain to the House his party's settled position on the Fresh Start Agreement, the same as every other party in the House? With the agreements already sought within that agreement, we believe that that is where we need to go. It is OK to include bits of the Fresh Start Agreement in a motion, but let us take the whole Fresh Start Agreement forward. Let us try to get a resolution to these issues once and for all, and then maybe victims will get some closure.

What Northern Ireland and what victims and survivors have come through over this generation is beyond explanation. Some of our young people do not even realise the horrors that have been inflicted on our people over the past 40 years. A light must be shone on all this, and the truth must come out. Justice must be done. That is the only way in which we will ever be able to move forward with any confidence. The moment that we trade justice is when we are in big trouble, and I believe that there will be no closure for the many victims and survivors in Northern Ireland.

We stand here today determined to resolve this issue. We stand here today wanting to resolve these issues. We are happy to stand over the work that we have done to date. Can we do more? Of course we can. Every single party and every single Member in the House can do more and work harder to resolve these issues. We will not be found wanting when it comes to trying to resolve the issues. We will work hard for all the people of Northern Ireland and all the victims to whose doors terror has been brought.

We will support the security forces and their work throughout those terrible years to keep the public safe and out of harm's way. A debt of gratitude should leave the House today for the service of people in the security forces and the role that they played in keeping us all safe. That should never be forgotten. That can never be rewritten, and it is important that we acknowledge it here today.

We hope for the support of the House for our amendment.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Tosnóidh Tráth na gCeist ag a dó. Question Time will commence shortly. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Gerry Kelly, who will move amendment No 2. The House may take its ease.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)