Legacy: a millstone around the neck of current policing – By Sean Murray

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The Ulster University last week hosted an event entitled ‘Chief Constable George Hamilton in conversation with journalist and author Brian Rowan’. 

The Chief Constable was quizzed by Barney on a number of issues which have impacted on and continue to shape current policing.

These included the PSNI’s handling of legacy matters including the recent arrests of local journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey and how the service could be more representative of the community it serves.

The probing at times was forensic and relentless, but the Chief Constable responded to all the difficult issues in a forthright manner.

The PSNI’s handling of legacy issues, especially their stance around disclosure, their tendency to mount lengthy appeals against successful legal challenges by families and the recent arrests of investigative journalists have seriously soured relations with the families of victims killed by state forces and their agents and with the wider Nationalist/Republican constituency.

The Chief Constable clearly recognises this scenario, and in their response to the legacy consultation last year the PSNI outlined the imperative of detaching current policing from dealing with legacy. This desire is blunted and prevented by the British government’s continuing refusal to implement, by legislating for, the key legacy mechanisms agreed at Stormont House almost five years ago, by both governments and the main parties. 

This Agreement was followed by a series of further discussions and negotiations to agree the detail of each mechanism, to put the proverbial ‘meat on the bones’ on the Heads of Agreement established in Stormont House.

Two years ago, the legacy draft bill, which featured in last year’s consultation , was completed after two and a half years of intense discussion, involving the five main parties and both governments. 

As with all negotiations it involved a compromise on a range of key concepts and positions. However, there was broad agreement that the draft bill, despite strong reservations on specific issues by the various parties, represented a way forward by enabling the establishment of a suite of mechanisms to go some way to satisfy the urgent needs and requirements of the victims and survivors’ community and society at large.

This dispels the lazy narrative, propagated in some quarters, that the local parties can’t agree on legacy. 

We already have a comprehensive agreement and a draft bill in waiting. What is required is for the British Government to introduce the draft bill, amended to deal with the HIU caseload and the interface between the HIU and the ICIR, at Westminster, a route already agreed by all parties.

Instead they continue to prevaricate and stall progress, allowing for the Agreement to be cherry picked and undermined by some, as costly legal processes supersede the political agreement, fomenting the division and poison that the issue attracts on a daily basis.

Barney, true to form, introduced the question of an amnesty for conflict-related offences. 

This issue has divided opinion across the political spectrum with some parties favouring a ‘partial’ amnesty solely for British Armed Forces although legal opinion tends to proffer that any amnesty would have to be extended to all combatants. 

Given that British state forces and their agents were allowed to operate with impunity during the conflict, which is reflected in the arrest, conviction and sentencing ratios for state and non-state forces, it isn’t surprising to ascertain that the loudest public calls for an amnesty emanate from the cheerleaders for British forces and the pro-military lobby at Westminster.

What is required is an informed discussion on the issue of legacy, devoid of emotion and partisan positions. More importantly, the British Government must recognise the political and moral imperative of the urgent need to address the issue of legacy by implementing the Stormont House Agreement mechanisms and dealing with the related issue of a pension for all citizens who have suffered serious physical or psychological injuries derived from the recent conflict in line with the current definition of a victim. 

The families on all sides of the conflict deserve better and we must relieve current policing of the burden that the legacy of the conflict brings.

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