Time for a new referendum in the North

Opinion: A ‘national act of contrition’ is needed

Recent events have put a sharper focus on one of the key issues raised by former White House special envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haass, pictured  with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson in July last year.  Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Recent events have put a sharper focus on one of the key issues raised by former White House special envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haass, pictured with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson in July last year. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire


Recent events in the North have brought into sharper focus one of the key issues addressed in last winter’s round of discussions on the past and other issues between Dr Richard Haass and the panel of parties from the Northern Ireland Executive.

The 2009 Report of the Consultative Group on the Past,jointly chaired by the Right Rev Robin Eames and Denis Bradley noted that, as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 2001, 3,523 people were killed. Of this total, 2,055 deaths were attributed to republican paramilitary groups, 1022 loyalist paramilitary groups, 368 to security forces and 80 to persons unknown. In addition, nearly 50,000 people in Northern Ireland sustained injuries in as many bombing and shooting incidents.

The victims and their families rightly remind us of the collective scale of the individual atrocities, as well as the personal tragedies. It is unarguable that victims at their point of need must be a key concern for us all, across this island.

However, at societal level in Northern Ireland much progress has been made – for example with unprecedented support for the policing institutions from all sections of the community. We believe the key objective has to be sustaining the peace process – and indeed the separate but closely related political process – to ensure we all live in a society in which such atrocities can never recur.

Last December, we published in book form Dealing with the Past, a note we had previously submitted to Dr Haass and the panel. In doing so, we sought to inform and widen the public debate, and to set out our views on how Northern Ireland might deal with its troubled past while achieving a healthy balance with the future.

Hierarchy of death
In describing the range of initiatives to address the past since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, including the part played by the Policing Board, the book referenced the speech by Sir Hugh Orde, when he was the Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable, to a colloquium at Trinity College Dublin in June 2005. In that, he cautioned against allowing a hierarchy of death to be created, with the majority of reinvestigations and inquiries focused on victims of alleged state involvement, whereas the majority of deaths and injuries resulted from the actions of paramilitary organisations.

Dealing with the Past highlights the proposals put forward by Desmond Rea, then chairman of the Policing Board together with the board vice-chairman, Denis Bradley, and support from the then chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, which formed part of the genesis of the Consultative Group on the Past. The book also drew directly on Rea’s personal contribution to a debate at the West Belfast Festival in 2007. In this he expressed the views that: Sinn Féin had argued that its paramilitary wing, viz Provisional IRA, was an army not terrorists, was engaged in a war and since the Troubles was a war the prisoners of war should be released; in a war nasty things happen on both sides; as of, say, the Belfast Agreement, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing should look to the future; the release of prisoners should be extended to an amnesty for all; there should be no more inquiries; and our concern as a society should be for the victims at their point of need.

In November 2013, in setting forth his views on dealing with the past, the attorney general for Northern Ireland, John Larkin, observed the larger constituency of victims who sustained loss at the hands of non-state actors do not see any comparable tools available to them.

In that same month, a report by the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspectorate cautioned about the costs of dealing with the past, adding “the criminal justice system had not been structured to deal with the past nor could it provide a comprehensive solution to legacy issues”.

In the Republic, the report by Judge Peter Smithwick published last December again pointed up how individuals may limit accounts to inquiries of their own roles in the past, even where they are eligible for immunity. Accordingly, we do not believe society and the peace process would be best- served by the continuing uncertainty and potential inconsistency of treatment to which Sir Hugh Orde referred in his 2005 speech.

Look to the future
We recognise the strength of the reaction in some quarters to what has been summarised as a call for an “amnesty”, but we continue to believe that, in society’s wider interests and the peace process, and taking account of the precedent of the early release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement, further imaginative departures from the criminal justice norm are required. As of, say, April 1998, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing look to the future. We do acknowledge the value of being provided with additional information about the circumstances of the deaths of loved ones, but we believe this can be achieved with our other recommendations. To this we would add that Northern Ireland should draw a line in a “national” act of contrition, and that the full programme of agreed measures be ratified in a Northern Ireland referendum (reflecting the value of the referendum that followed the 1998 Belfast Agreement).

Prof Sir Desmond Rea was chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board (2001-2009); Robin Masefield was latterly the director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and before that headed the policing reform division in the NI office. They are writing a history of policing in the North

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