December 30th – decision day for Northern Ireland’s politicians gathered at Dr Richard Haass’ round table, has finally arrived. It’s already proving to be a long one. Soon, it will be judgment day for the rest of us.
It seems they have already accepted defeat on the flying of flags. So toxic has that issue been allowed to become over the last year that the politicians appear ready to consign it to a commission which will deliberate over the next eighteen months, only reporting after local, European and General elections have come and gone. Flags will flutter – and fester – on.
On parades, the decision-making mechanism may change, but the decisions to be faced will remain the same – when, where and in what manner are contentious parades to be allowed to proceed? No political finessing is likely to change that reality. And without a long-term human rights framework like a NI Bill of Rights, such conflict of rights issues will probably continue to destabilise the body politic.
But it is on ‘dealing with the past’ that the politicians face their greatest challenge. And just possibly their greatest achievement… if they manage to get it right. But how to judge success?
To date, we have had piecemeal, fragmented approaches to dealing with the past. Each mechanism – Historical Enquiries Team, the Police Ombudsman’s office, inquests, public inquiries – has had their own particular remits, powers, strengths and weaknesses. And each has had a patchy record in delivering for victims of human rights violations and abuses. What’s needed now is a new, comprehensive mechanism to take over Troubles-era investigations, but with better powers, mandate and resources than what has gone before.
The HET and OPONI have been at their worst when their lack of independence has compromised their effectiveness and undermined the confidence of victims. That cannot be allowed to happen to any new mechanism to interrogate the past – it must be independent of government and any other political interference that would seek to hamper its work.
Existing mechanisms to deal with the past have had to operate like a boxer sent into the ring with one hand tied behind his back. One example: the Police Ombudsman has been asked to investigate allegations of past wrong-doing by police officers, while lacking the powers to compel retired police officers to provide evidence. This is illogical. Not only must the new mechanism have the right powers, it must be given the mandate and the resources to do the job properly – that requires commitment not just from the local parties but from the UK government as well.
The door to justice should not be closed prematurely. John Larkin’s ill-judged ‘blanket amnesty’ proposals were criticised so widely that this question should now be considered settled. Arrangements should be put in place to enable continued criminal investigation and, where there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecution. Any information retrieval mechanism should not be a replacement for the due process of law.
Will the new approach to deal with the past investigate attacks where people were left seriously injured but not dead? Current mechanisms focus primarily on the investigation of killings and suspicious deaths, mostly excluding people who were injured as a result of life-threatening attacks and torture. This disgraceful treatment of thousands of injured people must come to an end. The injured deserve investigation of their cases just as surely as those where people lost their lives.
Above all else, a new approach to dealing with the past must deliver for victims. Of course, different victims want different things – justice, truth, acknowledgment, reparation, support. They are entitled to all of these and should not be faced with false choices. Most of all, they must now be invited to play their part in shaping the design of any new system of investigation and information retrieval.
These are just a few of the benchmarks by which success or failure will be judged over the days ahead and the years to come. Let’s hope the judgment of history will be favourable.