Time to Deal with the Past

Thursday 12th September 2013 has been a busy day for human rights in Northern Ireland. It has reminded us that events such as the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bomb and the 1998 Omagh bombing remain relevant today; not only to the victims and their families, but to the broader citizen-state relationship in the UK. While investigation into killings during the Northern Ireland conflict is ongoing, they are considered unsatisfactory in many cases. In legal terms, any instance of the UK’s failure to observe its human rights obligations is a cause for concern for all citizens.

Amnesty International (AI) launched its new report, entitled “Time to Deal with the Past”, in Belfast’s MAC this morning. According to Alice Wyss of AI’s EU Team, the report calls for a single, overarching mechanism to ascertain how both armed groups and the UK contributed to abuses and violations during Northern Ireland’s conflict. It includes Recommendations regarding reparation to victims and steps to ensure that the abuses of the past are not repeated. The “fragmented system of investigation” currently in place – in the form of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), the Office of the Police Ombudsman’s Office (OPONI), etc. – which often prolongs families’ trauma, means that many are still waiting for answers.

“Time to Deal with the Past” also incorporates poignant insights of various victims:

 “In Northern Ireland, the past is the present – it’s what’s disrupting society at the minute…  You must deal with these issues, or you’re just burying them to reoccur again.” (Peter Heathwood)

“It hurts more because we’re not getting justice. We need closure of some form… The truth helps you understand. It helps you get your mind around what happened, who did it and why. It’s easier then to live your life… My father has dealt with this for years. Now it’s been passed onto me. I’m now fighting for justice. Where does it stop? Do I have to pass it onto my children before we get justice?” (James Miller)

“[There] has to be a process where families are engaged… [A]t the moment, that has been lacking in the process.” (Alan McBride)

“It’s only when you do get truth that you are able to move on… having an understanding of what happened and why it happened. It does free you up to move on a little bit.” (Maura Martin, pictured)

This blog recently discussed the UK’s positive obligation to investigate conflict-related killings in Northern Ireland. The UK has signed up to standards under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which require promptness, impartiality and thoroughness for satisfactory compliance with article 2 ECHR (right to life). It has been suggested after Janowiec [2012] that failure to investigate may constitute “inhumane or degrading treatment” and therefore a breach of article 3 ECHR. The law on this issue is certainly growing rapidly.

Today’s launch coincided with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers’, decision not to hold a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing. In a letter to the families, Villiers stated, “I do not believe it is in the public interest to establish an inquiry into the bombing.”

“There is an ongoing investigation of what happened on that day by the [Office of the] Police Ombudsman… I think that’s more than capable of dealing with any questions which still remain in respect of what happened at Omagh.

However, there have been significant problems highlighted in these ongoing investigations. Just today, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Bagott announced that Dave Cox will step down as Director of HET on 28th September 2013 after mounting criticisms of the institution’s operation. Also today, a High Court judge granted leave for judicial review of the decision not to disclose the findings of a HET report into the McGurk’s bombing, which alluded to bias in the initial RUC investigation. Earlier this week, Christopher Stanley questioned the role of the PSNI in conflict-related investigations on this blog.

It appears that Northern Ireland is in the midst of a legal overhaul of the state’s investigative obligation. In this context, AI’s report today is significant in its attempt to establish a single, overarching mechanism to investigate “overall patterns of abuse, policy and practice of non-state and state actors [and] identify those responsible at all levels” (p. 59). It is important that the UK responds to AI’s report – and the abundant wider research being carried out on the issue – because historical investigations have yet to lead to full accountability for violations. Moreover, it is imperative that the UK takes action today for the sake of the unknown, future victims of human rights abuses who may, one day, seek the truth.