Just a few days ago the Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie described as “a staggering omission” the decision to keep the legacy question outside the main talks process – that new negotiation aimed at restoring the political institutions at Stormont and which has now completed the first week of its work.
So, what is the thinking behind this?
It is this.
That to place the past inside this latest negotiation would leave it open to some trade-off.
So, instead, a parallel process will be created – to keep pace and time with the talks.
For some time now, we have known the likely shape of this. The waiting has been for an announcement, which Beattie says Secretary of State Karen Bradley will make at Westminster within the next few days.
My understanding is that once formal clearance has been given, that announcement will be made.
On this website on April 18, we reported that the Northern Ireland Office had completed its assessment of the responses to its legacy consultation; that there would be a published analysis of that with the possibility of options papers addressing the themes and issues that emerged. The intention was for a further short, focused discussion on all of this – both here and in Westminster. These remain the planned next steps. The challenge is how to stop this from becoming yet another consultation.
So, watch for that document on the NIO consultation – the response analysis.
Expect also specific papers on each of the planned legacy institutions – the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR), the Oral History Archive and on the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
Beattie predicted that two legacy working groups would be set up.
My understanding is this will happen, but again to distinguish the separate legacy process from the main talks, they may not be described as working groups.
Already, there are five such working groups within the main talks addressing:
– programme for government;
– transparency, accountability and the operation of the Executive;
– reform of the petition of concern;
– rights, language and identity issues, and
– improving the sustainability, stability and operation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions.
DEEP POLITICAL TRENCHES
To shovel the outstanding legacy work on top of this could bury the talks which, already, will struggle to find a way out of the deep political trenches.
We know the areas that still have to be settled on legacy; much of it to do with the proposed new Historical Investigations Unit, its caseload, oversight, recruitment, how to address GB cases as well as those injured during the conflict period.
Cases already reviewed by the old Historical Enquiries Team (HET) will again be looked at by the HIU.
Widening the frame, increasing the cost and stretching the time to complete this means this will not be done within the proposed five-seven years.
On the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the issue is how to protect information given to it – to ensure it cannot be used in investigations. The issue here is how to soundproof that process.
The government will address some of this, and the local parties with others will be asked to think out on a number of specific points. This could easily become another consultation.
Then, there is the question of protections for military veterans.
Here, it is becoming another flag/banner protest and, away from here, historical investigations are being framed and presented as a witch hunt.
That pressure has been applied over the past couple of years.
Will an already unstable government be able to resist the pressure and argument for a statute of limitations or the same thing differently described?
There is a long way still to travel from the past and into some legacy process.
Then, there are the unopened RHI and Brexit containers, also sitting outside the Stormont talks process.
There is no fixed deadline for this latest negotiation; only a Prime Minister/Taoiseach review at the end of this month.
At some point, Legacy, RHI and Brexit will play into these talks alongside the many other unsettled issues.
The past two-plus years have told us there won’t be another Executive without an Irish Language Act or marriage equality, but there is so much more than this to be settled.
Stormont is completely broken.
A sticking plaster won’t do, and if parties are sucked into another endless talking shop that does not produce a result, then this process will be yet another disaster.
Rebuilding Stormont won’t be done quickly and, if it is going to be done, then, this time, it needs to be done properly.