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Addressing the Past

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

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Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:15 pm, 7th November 2016

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.