In the latest essay in our series on the imbalance, TREVOR RINGLAND says that we have had enough of former paramilitaries sitting on panels and telling the victims how best to deal with their crimes in the past (for other essays in the series see links beneath the articles):
I remain unconvinced that the governments in London and Dublin are serious about dealing properly with crimes committed during the Troubles.
This lack of rigour allows highly motivated Irish republicans to consistently whitewash their movement’s role in perpetuating violence and some in wider nationalism to promote a narrative that attempts to pin the blame on the security forces instead.
If the government is serious, the convoluted structures proposed in the legacy consultation will not achieve its aim.
Instead, they will perpetuate the current mess, which favours the perpetrators of terror and division, while focussing resources on a few state killings and portraying counter terrorism as illegal ‘collusion’.
There are those in loyalism who are also comfortable with such a focus being promoted.
We have had enough of former paramilitaries sitting on panels and telling the victims how best to deal with their crimes in the past.
The current proposals, if ever adopted, will also take some 25 years to work through and cost hundreds of millions.
What I have suggested below can start within six months and would be effective at a reasonable cost.
We need an effective, efficient structure that is properly resourced and stands the best possible chance of delivering truth and justice to as many families as possible.
The bones of such a structure already exists and it is known as our criminal justice system!
It has evolved over many centuries and is equipped with an investigative body to collect evidence, a prosecution service to assess the merits of cases and bring them to trial and an independent judiciary to hear the cases.
Pragmatically, a decision on the involvement of juries will rest on the level of threat that jurors may be exposed to.
These structures should be capable of dealing with the majority of crimes, but there may be a small number that need safeguards to ensure confidence in the independence of the investigation.
This has already been achieved in the past with a small, independent scrutiny group providing the necessary oversight.
The existing bodies could follow this procedure, which would open with a judicial assessment held in private.
a) Establish whether further investigation is possible or required to bring the case to a close through a criminal trial, civil case, inquest or a recognition that nothing further can be done. The Public Prosecution Service can indicate who was responsible and in the case of paramilitary crimes provide background in relation to the paramilitary structures in the area where the crime was committed.
b) The individuals or families will have their own separate legal representation at the hearing and will be able to interrogate the PSNI and PPS further on the investigation
c) Mediation before the hearing could assist in agreeing what options are realistic to bring a case to as satisfactory a conclusion as possible.
d) The families or individuals will also be able to make an impact statement setting out the consequences of what happened to them or their loved ones. This testimony would be recorded and made public and would be similar to that seen at the Grenfell Inquiry and be open for use to educate future generations as to the consequences of conflict.
It would essentially be expanding upon what already exists in a more limited form in the book “Lost Lives”.
e) The PSNI would carry out the investigations and the Public Prosecution Service present the cases. They already have the necessary powers. They just need to be properly resourced.
f) Extra judges could be appointed for the initial assessment and then within a relatively short period each case would have had judicial scrutiny and a clear path to some form of resolution. Budgets would then be set and used fairly. For example, the money set aside for inquests could be used for any case where it was felt the best direction of travel was through an inquest.
g) The Police Ombudsman office would be restructured with an independent group taking the place of a single Ombudsman (at no extra cost), ensuring that it acted in accordance with the justice system.
h) The co-operation of former police officers would be vital in the investigation of the vast majority of crimes, bearing in mind that well over ninety per cent were carried out by the paramilitaries.
It is also a reality that information retrieval will be compromised by national security and that will always remain the case which understandably will be a frustration to a relatively small number of families.
As to an oral history archive, oral testimony given at the review hearing will provide considerable insight into the impact of conflict.
Anything further will be a matter for academics who should seek their own funding. Historians though could play an important role in reminding us of the historical detail.
The civil rights movement was not about ‘One man,one vote!’ but that non rate payers (nationalists and unionists) would be entitled to vote in local council elections. Everyone had the vote in Westminster and Stormont elections!
In terms of reconciliation, this should be tasked to a civic group to undertake.
Most of us have little difficulty in building relationships. With those who continue to argue that their crimes were justified it will be more difficult, but we have shown a certain pragmatism to date which should continue.
An unqualified apology by the perpetrators of the crimes rather than the pursuance of respect for their actions would make a significant contribution to healing some of the damage done to our society.
Any group tasked with reconciliation should be made up of those who find solutions to our problems and not those who see them as opportunities to continue the battles of old.
Never again should we allow those who hate the most to determine relationships between the vast majority of us.
If such an apology was given by an organisation or an individual, consideration could be given as to what sentences would be imposed for their crimes, bearing in mind that some of those who promoted the ideologies that caused the unnecessary conflict in the first place have been rewarded rather than vilified.
Increased sentences for terrorist related offences, including attempted or actual murders of soldiers, police and prison officers, would be a proper basis for sending a clear message to those continuing to use violence that could work alongside a multi-agency approach adopted to restricting their activities.
The definition of a victim should be normalised though that does not mean we do not care about those who were caught up in the unnecessary violence. As a loyalist paramilitary leader put it to me, “We are not victims. We made victims!”
Such brutal realism would be refreshing from the leadership of the republican movement.
So this is my submission to the Northern Ireland Office and their proposals.
We do not need more of the same and that is what their paper offers. We do need a clear commitment to using our justice system properly and resourcing it sufficiently. Proper safeguards can be put in place for cases where ensuring independence is a justifiable concern.
So it is time for more honesty around this matter and a discussion of the options that are realistically open to all those affected by our unnecessary conflict.
• Trevor Ringland is a reconciliation activist, politician and former Ireland international rugby player
MORE ON LEGACY SCANDAL SERIES BELOW: