The government consultation on dealing with the legacy of The Troubles is “directed inwards towards the state and its security forces”, a leading victims’ group has claimed.
Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for umbrella group Innocent Victims United (IVU), made the comment after the publication of a summary of responses to the ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ consultation document.
It gives an overview of reactions to the proposals set out in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA), which included the creation of an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to take forward outstanding investigations into Troubles-related deaths, and the establishment of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).
It says “the overarching message from the vast majority of those who responded to the consultation is clear: the current system needs to be reformed and we have an obligation to seek to address the legacy of the past in a way that builds for the future”.
The consultation summary reflects what it says is a clear majority against an amnesty, yet does not say that there is a majority for or against the definition of a victim, which is the source of major concerns. It mentions public fears that the proposed mechanisms are imbalanced in that they will focus more on alleged state killings than terrorist murders, which equate to around 90% of Troubles deaths. But it does not quantify those concerns, and say whether they are a majority view, as it does about an amnesty.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the consultation should help develop a better way forward, but said the definition of a victim remains a point of concern.
“It is immoral that the bombmaker is defined as a victim in the same way as the person who lost limbs in the bomb. A new United Kingdom definition of a victim would have a transformative impact on how we deal with the past,” she said.
Mrs Foster, who stressed that “justice must always remain open to victims of terrorism”, added: “The challenge is finding a way forward which ensures that history is not rewritten and those who took innocent life are held accountable rather than the reputation of those who stood against terrorism being inaccurately tarnished.”
Describing the NIO summary as “disappointing” but “no surprise”, Mr Donaldson said: “It gives passing recognition to the deep reservations expressed by an entire constituency of victims/survivors of terrorism concerning the operations and remit of the proposed HIU, the Republic of Ireland state’s lack of engagement and its failure to provide tangible actions that it will commit to in dealing with its failings past and present.
“Yet the consultation seems to present a more pointed narrative which is directed inwards towards the state and its security forces. There is limited acknowledgement given to the incendiary proposal which connects to retired police where allegations of gross misconduct can be made and findings reached that the accused is unable to contest. Terrorist personnel do not face such treatment within the proposals.
“No clarity is given on the numbers of respondents stating particular perspectives in the consultation and there is no action plan included.
“It is a document that fails to reflect the scale of the concerns of terrorist victims.”
Alan McBride of the Wave Trauma Centre said there is “nothing really surprising within the report”, but added that one area of concern is that the document does not include an options paper.
“Without that there is no real decision mechanism in terms of how you take it forward,” he said.
Mr McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and father-in-law John Frizzell in the Shankill bomb, added: “Obviously they have had this kicking around for a while now, but I don’t think it is particularly meaningful. It’s certainly not going to move the process forward any time soon.”
Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson welcomed the publication as “a step towards dealing with the pain, injury and loss experienced by so many during decades of the Troubles”.
The 38-page publication was produced after analysis of over 17,000 responses to the consultation last year.
Respondents included individuals, victims’ groups, political parties, community organisations, veterans’ groups, trade unions and churches.
The document will inform the UK government’s next steps working with a restored Northern Ireland Executive, or local political parties.
Regarding the SHA proposals, the document said: “The majority indicated broad support for the institutional framework.
“Many noted, however, a number of areas of concern including: around funding and resourcing; how the institutions would interact; independence; staffing of the proposed institutions; and the overall time frame envisaged for the work of the institutions.”
It added: “A number of people held the view that the proposals are weighted against former members of the security forces.
“There were concerns that legacy investigations would be one-sided, favouring terrorist groups, and that more needed to be done to protect former members of the security forces.”
On the issue of a possible amnesty, including for veterans who served in Northern Ireland, the summary states: “The clear majority of all respondents to the consultation argued that a statute of limitations or amnesty would not be appropriate for Troubles-related matters – many were clear that victims, survivors and families are entitled to pursue criminal justice outcomes and such a move could risk progress towards reconciliation.
“There was a strong sense that the new mechanisms must be fair and not favour any particular group.”
Asked if it will be publishing more detailed consultation responses, including numerical results, the NIO said: “No, the summary today is the published outcome of the consultation.
“The government will set out next steps in due course.”
‘A one-sided process is almost inevitable’
There must be a fundamental change to the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) legacy proposals, the UUP has insisted.
Reacting to the publication of the consultation summary, the party’s justice spokesperson Doug Beattie MC MLA said: “We must be careful that we do not end up with a process which gives in to those who shout the loudest rather than seeking to do what is right, and deliver a balanced, fair, equitable and proportionate solution.”
He pointed out that the summary of responses “does not give any conclusions, recommendations or a way forward”, but claimed it does vindicate the UUP’s stance on the SHA legacy mechanisms agreed by Sinn Fein and the DUP.
“We have previously highlighted the many flaws in the Historical Investigations Unit and we welcome the fact that many respondents recognise our concerns that a one-sided process is almost inevitable given that only the state has historical records and that re-writing of history with a focus on the role of the police and the Army is the aim of republicans,” he said.
“With regard to the proposed Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, we would simply refer to the comments by Gerry Adams last weekend at the funeral of former IRA leader Kevin McKenna: ‘The part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known.’
“That quote should be the end of any fantasy that republicans will ever engage in a truth process. They demand the truth from others, yet have no intention of providing it themselves. It’s long past time the government stopped indulging this hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington has declined to rule out a statute of limitations for veterans who served in Northern Ireland, saying ministers would have to think “very carefully” about the issue.