20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the outstanding issues related to victims and survivors have largely been left in a state of limbo. All too often, the public discourse on the issues and needs of victims and survivors has been dominated by other political concerns at the expense of a victim centred approach.
The NIO consultation on ‘Addressing the Legacy of the Past’ was launched on the 11th May and will close on 10th September. The lineage of the proposed mechanisms is rooted in the report of the Consultative Group on the Past almost 10 years ago, the Haass O ‘Sullivan recommendations in 2014 and our own submission of policy advice on “Dealing with the Past: A victim-centred approach’ which is available here on the Commission’s website. These processes culminated in the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms on dealing with the past, some but not all of which are currently being consulted upon by the NIO.
We know what victims and survivors need – they have expressed this on numerous occasions including engaging with Consultative Groups on the Past, Haass O’ Sullivan and ourselves. The Victims and Survivors Forum have spent the past year engaging with the five main political parties, their leaders and government ministers from the UK and Ireland. The members have told them consistently what they need to address their needs and help our community move forward.
Victims and survivors want options and choices including access to truth, information recovery and justice processes. They want acknowledgement of the harm and hurt caused to them. They want timely and effective services to address the needs they have as a result of the Troubles, including an effective and regional Mental Trauma Service.
Those who were most severely injured need a pension to redress the loss of their livelihood and ability to be economically active. Families who have waited decades for an inquest should be able to access these and funding should be made available to the Lord Chief Justice to expedite these as soon as possible. Although a pension, is not included in the Legacy consultation, it will require new legislation and this is a matter which needs to be addressed urgently. A pension cannot be ‘parked’ as a devolved issue. It would be completely unacceptable for other bodies to be progressed whilst those most severely harmed remain without a means of supporting themselves.
However, a cursory review of media and public discourse will not highlight and inform on these clearly stated options and choices; rather, the debate is being situated on issues not in the proposals.
A statute of limitations or an amnesty are not part of the Stormont House Agreement. This is because a majority of victims and survivors did not want one as it will not deliver on the options and choices they require to meet their needs. A majority of victims and survivors that with whom I have engaged have advised me that it would be counter intuitive to their needs to disregard the primacy of the rule of law.
This consultation affords victims and survivors and all of civic society the opportunity to have their say on the establishment of the mechanisms. Realistically how can this process work without the voice of victims and survivors and wider civil society being heard? There needs to be some process put in place to allow victims’ voices to be heard, not just now in the consultation process, but as these proposed institutions are designed and developed.
The Historical Investigation Unit, the Oral History Archive, the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval and Implementation and Reconciliation Group are designed to address truth, justice and acknowledgement needs of victims and survivors.
Firstly, the Historical Investigations Unit is designed to meet the need for justice. This would be an independent body investigating Conflict related deaths. It would investigate outstanding cases from the Historical Enquiries Team and legacy work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. It would have full ‘policing’ powers (e.g. can make arrests, interview under caution).
However, the main output from their investigations will be reports to families (for those who want them, and in most families, there will be some who choose not to receive information) and will also report to the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
The principle of the rule of law is upheld in this process, but given the passage of time, it is unlikely in most cases that sufficient evidence will be generated to secure a conviction. The decision as to whether to prosecute will lie with the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, giving a level of independence from the Historical Investigations Unit. However, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland can only prosecute if there is a reasonable chance of a conviction.
The Oral History Archive is related to the need for acknowledgement; individuals would be able to share experiences and narratives of the Conflict. It would include new material as well as material from existing oral history projects. It should be designed to generate dialogue and ultimately, understanding.
The Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, is linked to the need for information and would be established by the UK and Irish Governments. It would enable bereaved families/individuals to confidentially obtain information gathered by the ICIR, but only if they specifically request it. This information could not be used for legal proceedings or prosecution.
Lastly, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group would oversee themes emerging from investigation, archives and information recovery. A report would be commissioned from independent academics after 5 years. Like the Oral History Archive, this mechanism relates to the need for acknowledgment and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group can ask for statements of acknowledgement to be made.
The development and implementation of these processes must consider the needs of victims and survivors and afford all of our society the best chance to move forward together and not be dominated by external influences and issues.
There will be a clear need for advocacy from independent groups for victims and survivors as they engage with these bodies so that they are supported and informed to understand their options and make choices that are best for them.
Whilst these proposed mechanisms may not be perfect, solutions and effective delivery are needed. These proposals need to work for the people who have been waiting too long. They need to work for us as a society so that we can engage with the past in a way that helps us to move forward. Therefore we need to look at ways to make this work. We need to build trust between all those involved in establishing these new bodies in order to assist victims and survivors in accessing truth, justice and acknowledgement.
Independence is crucial for the success of any of these bodies and without it, there will be a distinct lack of trust from all those involved.
And what are the consequences of not participating in the consultation? This process will still continue but the voice of those who need this mostly will simply not be heard and is that how the best outcome will be achieved? Engagement is key, all views need to be taken into consideration and therefore I am asking people to come forward, talk to me and tell me what is important.
It is critical that as many victims and survivors, including those who have never come forward to date or indeed don’t identify as a ‘victim or survivor’, have their voices heard at this critical conjuncture. These are the voices that were left behind 20 years ago and it is now time to listen, so that action can be taken to address those harms.
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency conducted a population survey for the Commission earlier this year and 26% of respondents said they were affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland.
58% thought it was important or very important to deal with the legacy of the past and 73% supported the provision of a pension for the severely injured. These statistics tell us that the Legacy of the conflict is an issue for ALL of us- not just the 1 in 4 of our society who have been affected by the Troubles and we all benefit if effective mechanisms are delivered to address these issues. When these issues are addressed we can all look forward to a better future out of the ‘Limbo-Land’ of the past.
To quote Jonas Salk “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors”. We need to address the impact of the legacy of the conflict in, and about Northern Ireland in order to be good ancestors to future generations.
Note: Please visit the ‘Understanding Legacy’ section of Commission’s website for further background to the NIO consultation and for information on how to have your say. Should you wish to discuss the details further, please contact the Commission on (028) 9031 1000 or email at email@example.com.