Time to consider suspension of investigations into the past

Trevor Ringland
Trevor Ringland

As the debate around legacy issues from the Troubles rages, I remain to be convinced that we are serious about ‘dealing with our past’ in a fair and equitable manner. Much of the commentary concentrates on the state’s involvement in illegal acts, a justifiable area for investigation, but a small part of many years of violence. I would suggest that any overall process takes on board the following points.

1. There should be an acknowledgement that the Troubles need not have happened and that violence could never and will never solve the problems on this island.

2. We should draw upon acknowledged good practice in history, for example the Nuremburg Trials, to establish the responsibility of all those who promoted flawed ideologies lying at the heart of our conflict. If we are going to investigate combatants should we not also pursue the truth around those who determined strategy and issued orders?

3. There were over 1,000 members of the security services murdered and thousands injured, many of them seriously. It is imperative that we investigate the past equitably. As I understand it, of around 1,400 murder investigations that still require resolution, at least 700 relate to members of the security services.
4. We could consider introducing new mechanisms to find perpetrators guilty on the basis of the civil burden of proof, ie balance of probabilities, with agreement from victims in certain particularly difficult cases. This would establish guilt and enable victims to seek remedies like compensation. Otherwise the criminal burden of proof, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, would still be applied.

5. Currently if convicted, those responsible for murders would serve two years in prison. Either that provision must be extended to members of the security services or alternatively we should consider re-introducing sentences appropriate to the seriousness of particular crimes. Such a measure would punish properly those who leave victims in the dark about their misdeeds.

6. Any inquests would have to work within the overall resources made available to deal with the past.

7. There are sensitivities around the involvement of RUC or PSNI officers in investigations where the security services were implicated in wrongdoing. However, in the majority of cases, members of the RUC/PSNI are vital to uncovering the truth. There should be a special group set up to encourage former members of the RUC/PSNI to provide any information they can in relation to crimes.

My generation has had to make some very difficult, sometimes unpalatable decisions, in an attempt to shape a more harmonious future for young people.

To waste the grace which many in our society have been good enough to show would be irresponsible and a betrayal, likely to pass on our hatreds to the next generation.

I query whether the current provisions under the Stormont House Agreement for dealing with the past can be managed maturely. Can we really handle the truth?

It’s worth debating the Stormont House Agreement, but it’s also worth revisiting a suggestion made by the Attorney General, John Larkin.

His comments were termed an ‘amnesty’ by the media, but it’s perhaps better to talk about a ‘suspension’ of investigations into the past. Maybe it’s time we had a discussion about what a proposal for such a suspension might look like.

l Trevor Ringland is a
solicitor, political activist and former Ireland rugby international