Prospect of justice for terror victims might not improve under proposals

Belfast author Henry Patterson

Belfast author Henry Patterson

  • by Henry Patterson

Commenting on the pre-Christmas failure to achieve agreement on flags, parades and the past, Dr Haass did praise the progress that has been made on dealing with the parades and the past.

However, on the past it appears there is a danger that truth recovery will be subordinated to the politics of ethnic bargaining.

From the limited information about the fourth draft of the Haass/O’Sullivan document that has been reported in the media, it appears that the two institutions proposed to deal with the past have aroused serious differences between the parties.

The Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) seems to be a powerful new policing body charged with replacing the Historical Enquiries Team of the PSNI and conflict-related investigations of the Police Ombudsman.

It would have full investigative powers denied to the HET which would enable it to interview under caution and use subpoenas to compel testimony and request documents.

This has predictably raised unionist fears that the main focus of the HIU will be on former members of the security forces as it is much easier to get access to information about state involvement in violent incidents than for paramilitary organisations.

While it is true that the state should be held to a higher standard of accountability than terrorists, the political fact remains that such a focus will do little to ease the inter-communal tensions which Haass and O’Sullivan were tasked with addressing.

Another and related issue appears to be that of the identification of themes or patterns in the history of the conflict. This would be the remit of the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).

Underlying the proposal for the ICIR appears to be the hope, despite Judge Smithwick dismissing the reliability of testimony from former members of the IRA to his tribunal, that in return for limited immunity, those involved in carrying out unlawful killings in Northern Ireland might choose to give information to assist families in finding out what happened to their loved ones.

Such information would be also interrogated to investigate whether broader patterns could be identified in terms of the organisations – state and paramilitary – involved in violence during the Troubles.

Although it appears that Dr Haass has set his face against the proposal of the Arkiv group, of which I am a member, for an Historical Clarification Commission, there appears to be a rather perverse form of such a proposal in the ICIR’s role in identifying themes or patterns.

This sort of work is a large part of what historians have traditionally been involved in doing.

However, the fundamental question is how themes are identified.

An HCC would not approach the past with any pre-ordained themes whether they be of collusion or ethnic cleansing on the border.

A danger with what appears to have been proposed in the Haass/O’Sullivan document is that its remit is going to be constrained by some sort of ethnic bargain as to what themes are going to be examined: for example Sinn Fein and the SDLP could get state collusion whilst the DUP and the UUP could get the IRA campaign on the border.

The thematic element also suffers from the limitations of the investigative element- that the paper trail is voluminous for themes involving the state and its agents but skimpy or non-existent for paramilitaries.

Like Eames-Bradley, much is being wagered on the effects of moral pressure for cooperation and information from organisations like the IRA that have a record of being largely impervious to it.

In his controversial comments on dealing with the past John Larkin noted that the tools we have for critiquing the state are very good but that we lack equivalent tools for bringing to account anti-state organisations.

There is a danger that Haass’s proposals, while further strengthening our tools against the state, will do little to improve the possibilities of justice for the victims of paramilitaries.

Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster




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