A leading academic advisor on the Stormont House Agreement has warned MPs not be “overselling” the idea that paramilitaries are going to be held to account under the deal “because it is going to be legally too difficult to do”.
That was the warning at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday from professor of law Kieran McEvoy from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).
He has been part of the team of key civic advisors on the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) since it was first drafted in 2014, the others being QUB law professor Louise Mallinder and Daniel Holder, deputy director of the NGO, the Committee on the Administration of Justice. The SHA proposed four institutions to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, but has been criticised by many terror victims.
Mr Holder told MPs that “the rule of law was very rarely applied to the security forces in the early days of the Troubles”. He said that from 1969-1974 there were 189 people killed by the security forces, yet there have not yet been any convictions for this since the Belfast Agreement.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said that the number of unresolved killings by police and soldiers are very important “but are relatively tiny compared to the unresolved terrorist campaign [murders] that went on for 30 years”.
In terms of proportionality, Mr McEvoy responded that 30-40,000 paramilitaries did serve time in jail. “That means the experience of imprisonment directly impacted on working class communities in particular both in loyalist and republican areas, so it is not a small number,” he said.
Mr McEvoy added that they should not be “overselling that paramilitaries are going to be held to account or sent to prison... we can’t be telling victims that because it is going to be legally too difficult to do it”.
Similarly, Mr Holder said the numbers of killings by the security forces were “significant” and that there are “very few prosecutions” of those responsible.
It was impossible to know how many police and soldiers were engaged in collusion until proper investigations took place, he said. At present terrorists are held responsible for 90% of killings, but SHA investigations could find the security forces involved in collusion in many more cases, he added.
The panel of academics were repeatedly asked by MPs how they viewed the statutory definition of a victim, which MPs said equated bombers with their victims.
Mr Holder said changes proposed by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP and Ulster Human Rights Watch would not be acceptable because they would exclude victims of state violence.
Labour MP Kate Hoey asked whether the Shankill bombers should be equated with their victims.
Mr McEvoy responded that the definition had been formulated by the Labour Party and that one of the concerns in its drafting was that the children of terrorists would not be excluded. However, he added that the question was “broadly a side issue” as far as his panel was concerned.
Mr McEvoy also said it had been “unfair” on the Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson to face criticism for not advocating a change to the definition of a victim.
He went on to welcome the possibility of ‘rewriting the past’, saying that an agreed version of the Troubles was no more possible than an agreed history of Brexit.
“So all of this contest around rewriting of history - that is a healthy thing for me” he said.
Lady Sylvia Hermon MP said: “There is a very real fear particularly among the unionist community that this is going to be used as a vehicle to rewrite history.”
The fear is that the SHA will be used to paint the security forces as equivalent to the terrorists, she said, asking how this would be prevented.
Mr McEvoy replied: “I get asked that question a lot, particularly by members of the unionist community.” But the SHA mechanisms are “designed to prevent partial versions of what went on” he said. Republicans killed 2,000 people and “it is hard to obfuscate that” he added.
Mr McEvoy said a public survey had found a “real appetite for apologies”, but Lady Hermon asked who was going to going to say sorry to RUC widows?
Mr McEvoy replied: “The current generation of the Sinn Fein leadership don’t have an IRA background,” he said. “So do they have the credibility to stand up and apologise on behalf of republicans?”
Chairman Simon Hoare MP said many political leaders have used their office to apologise for events in which they had no involvement.
But Mr McEvoy said it was difficult for Sinn Fein. “If the leadership of Sinn Fein apologise for actions that were done by the IRA, then what you don’t want is for older generation of IRA people to come back and say - who are you to apologise on behalf of me?” he said.
Ms Hoey put it to Mr McEvoy that his panel was considered by many to be “anti-state” and not genuinely interested in victims of terrorism. But Mr McEvoy responded that this “exasperated” him, adding that a very broad cross section of groups attend his conferences and that he offers free advice to everyone.
Prof McEvoy’s associate Mr Holder confirmed that under the SHA the security forces would be held to a higher standard of accountability than terrorists. Ex-RUC officers will be investigated for “grave” breeches of their code of conduct even if it was not criminal conduct, he added, something that ex-soldiers will apparently not be subjected to.
Mr McEvoy concluded the session saying that if the Stormont House Agreement is not implemented soon, there is not the political energy for an alternative “and victims will be betrayed if that happens”.
Earlier, he told the MPs that the UUP is advising “let’s dumps the Stormont House Agreement” without suggesting any alternative, adding that “I find their statement on this morally outrageous”.
Later in the day, UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie hit back with a statement, insisting his party had indeed suggested alternatives.
A one-sided process is “almost inevitable” with the SHA, Mr Beattie said, given that only the state has historical records. And openness from republicans about the past is unlikely, given that Gerry Adams recently said at the funeral of IRA leader Kevin McKenna that the part played by republicans “will never be told” he said.
“The UUP will apologise to nobody for articulating the concerns of innocent victims of terrorism and defending the security forces,” Mr Beattie added.