Labour’s recommendations to Haass to reform Parades Commission, reform HET … and introduce a bank holiday

The Labour Party’s submission to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks is spread over five pages (with a two page summary of recommendations at the back).

It starts by noting the important role the Labour Party played in the peace process, saying that the party’s submission is a “signal [of] our continued commitment to ensuring Northern Ireland continues on its journey to build peace, fairness and prosperity”.

There’s an emphasis throughout the submission on local committees and forums rather than relying solely on centralised bodies to bring about truth and reconciliation. The submission references the Good Friday Agreement “and subsequent agreements” as well as the “Eames-Bradley” Consultative Group on the Past proposals, and notes the “vital” work of the PSNI. It’s not clear from the submission whether the local NI Labour movement have had any input to the submission.

They have some a quick fix and a long plan for the Parades Commission, a stance on flags, ideas on the reform of the HET and support for a peace process-celebrating Public Holiday. [Ed – is it mandatory that Haass submissions have a gimmick to take the spotlight off other more serious suggestions?]

On parading, Labour suggest that the Parades Commission allow decisions to be appealed to a panel of commissioners not involved in the original decision.

We want to signal our broad support for the Parade Commission, but believe that over time responsibility for the membership and remit of the Commission should be transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive. It is clear that such a transfer would not be appropriate at the present time.

The transparency of the Commission’s decision making process should be strengthened with immediate effect. Within the constraints of necessary security-related confidentiality, all decisions should be accompanied by an explanation consistent with publicly available criteria.

Isn’t that the Parades Commission’s determination document published on their website?

There should be a clear process and timescale for a speedy right of appeal with the appeal considered by a panel of commissioners not involved in the initial decision.

It is essential the rule of law applies to all Commission decisions. Any breach should be subject to appropriate action by the PSNI. Local and national politicians should be expected to support the Commission’s decisions once due process has been followed.

On flags Labour supports the main building of each council flying the Union flag on designated days.

In most circumstances decisions about flying flags on public buildings should be made by institutions having taken full account of views and sensitivities within the relevant local community.

However, in relation to the main civic building in every council area it would be best if all parties could sign up to a compromise agreement. The basis of such an agreement would be to accept the precedent currently applied to Government buildings and Stormont which recognises that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, whereby the Union flag will fly on agreed designated days.

Clearly, discretion should be available to take account of one off events and special occasions.

Clearly, discretion and one-off events could easily become a bone of contention.

Labour acknowledge grassroots initiatives that have been dealing with the past and “have been successful in healing some of the pain related to the past”. They outline some principles for dealing with the past.

First, any process must put victims and their families centre stage. Some seek truth, others truth and justice, and a minority would rather not revisit the past. Every effort must be made to accommodate this range of views and needs in any new framework.

A second important principle is that any process must recognise that significant progress can be made without trying to achieve a shared narrative about the past. What is of paramount importance is that Nationalists and Unionists make a reality of “parity of esteem” and learn to respect the equal status and legitimacy of their fellow citizens now and in the future. Going forward violence can never be condoned, should be condemned by politicians from all parties and all community leaders and renounced by all paramilitary groups. Only then will we be able to move towards a path of mutual forgiveness, reconciliation and shared remembrance.

The third principle is that while it is, of course, right to consider all options about addressing responsibility and accountability for past wrongdoing, it is also important to say that any process must recognise the rights and responsibilities defined by the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention is clear. It stresses the importance of ensuring justice, truth and reparation in response to violation and abuses, which would require a deep and sensitive understanding of what that would mean for the wishes and expectations of victims and their families.

On truth recovery

Those with relevant knowledge of paramilitary activities or unlawful actions by people acting on behalf of the State should be encouraged to provide information which assists victims and their families to establish the truth about specific events.

No mention of what encouragement would be offered: sense of civic pride, immunity from investigation or prosecution?

A process will need to be established with consideration given to the possibility of creating forums at a local level which provides people with the opportunity to exchange information relevant to their local communities.

On the HET ….

We recognise the important work that the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has done to bring justice to families …

But …

… public confidence requires significant reform of its status, remit and functions. A new or reformed organization must be totally independent and be given adequate powers. In addition to reviewing specific incidents, it should be able should be able to examine themes such as specific paramilitary activity or allegations connected with State collusion. Serious consideration should be given to extending its remit to include incidents which led to serious injuries as well as fatalities.

There is a strong case for a time limit of five-years to be applied to its work. Although this will require strong leadership and adequate resources.

Previous commitments to public inquiries (eg, around the murder of Pat Finucane) “should be honoured … However other than in exceptional circumstances we believe every effort should be made to achieve truth and justice without the need for further public inquiries”.

On reconciliation

Consideration to be given to the creation of a specific Bank Holiday to celebrate the historic achievement of a peace process which has been lauded across the world. This should focus on events and activities which celebrate political, societal, economic progress and showcase positive examples of reconciliation. Clearly, maximum possible consensus should be sought to identify a date which would be agreeable to all communities.

Building on the excellent work of the WAVE Trauma Centres, we believe urgent consideration should be given to the creation of comprehensive post-trauma services in every community to provide the necessary support and therapy to victims of the troubles.

The establishment of a national civic forum with consideration given to providing support for the development of local civic forums such as the Derry-Londonderry’s “Unity of Purpose” group.

Agreement to a shared remembrance day which both focuses on the troubles of the past while providing an opportunity to highlight a commitment to a shared future.

Labour suggest that the NI Executive “supported by business and civil society “ should make a concerted effort “to tackle youth unemployment and disengagement“.

Labour opt for sharing and integration in education, encouraging “school twinning and shared campuses … alongside support for the integrated education movement”. They want to see ”joint sporting activities and events at a grassroots and elite level”.

Strong support is offered for OFMdFM’s TBUC [Together: Building a United Community”] commitment to creating a 10- year programme to removing peace walls by 2033.

Consideration should be given to the establishment of local committees with equal representation from each community to agree a programme of reconciliation linked to a timescale for the demolition of specific barriers.

It’s so hard to avoid the language of “each community” that reduces Northern Ireland streets to orange and green. Yet there can be more than two sides to a wall.

Labour have a recommendation about an “appropriate structure to oversee the process”.

A commission should be established by the Northern Ireland Executive with a 5-year mandate to oversee all issues relating to the past in connection with truth recovery, truth and justice and reconciliation. This commission should be chaired by a credible international figure.

Labour’s submission finishes with some pointers to other issues – outside the main Haass agenda – that influence NI’s chances of peace and stability, and include some digs at the Conservative/Liberal coalition.

The corrosive cycle of poor educational attainment, worklessness and intergenerational deprivation continues to afflict far too many families and communities in Northern Ireland. Families in Northern Ireland are facing a cost of living crisis with people £800 per year worse off under this Government.

Almost 1 in 5 young people are unemployed. These conditions have the potential to be the breeding ground for extremists, and for perpetual conflict and instability. Although these issues are primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government has a key role to play in supporting a jobs and growth strategy and reconsidering pernicious social security policies such as the Bedroom Tax.

This year’s disturbances should teach us a number of lessons, one of which is undoubtedly that unfinished business remains in relation to the past. However, we must also reflect on the impact of social and economic inequality, which must be addressed if peace in Northern Ireland is to move from a political accommodation to a society built on genuine reconciliation and mutual respect.

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