Bloody Friday BBC image
Barnie Rowan has broken important news on EamonnMallie. Com worth repeating at length.
Just a few days ago the Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie described as “a staggering omission” the decision to keep the legacy question outside the main talks process – that new negotiation aimed at restoring the political institutions at Stormont and which has now completed the first week of its work.
So, what is the thinking behind this?
It is this. That to place the past inside this latest negotiation would leave it open to some trade-off.
So, instead, a parallel process will be created – to keep pace and time with the talks.
For some time now, we have known the likely shape of this. The waiting has been for an announcement, which Beattie says Secretary of State Karen Bradley will make at Westminster within the next few days.
My understanding is that once formal clearance has been given, that announcement will be made.
On this website on April 18, we reported that the Northern Ireland Office had completed its assessment of the responses to its legacy consultation; that there would be a published analysis of that with the possibility of options papers addressing the themes and issues that emerged. The intention was for a further short, focused discussion on all of this – both here and in Westminster. These remain the planned next steps. The challenge is how to stop this from becoming yet another consultation.
So, watch for that document on the NIO consultation – the response analysis. Expect also specific papers on each of the planned legacy institutions – the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR), the Oral History Archive and on the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
Beattie predicted that two legacy working groups would be set up.My understanding is this will happen, but again to distinguish the separate legacy process from the main talks, they may not be described as working groups
No “ staggering omission” at all, as Doug Beattie claims, to keep the legacy apart from the talks process, just common sense for eight reasons.
- There is no point whatsoever in adding to the sticking points. To make the return to the Assembly conditional on solving the legacy issues is to pronounce a sentence of doom on the process – unless something is going on behind the scenes we don’t know about. Given the trust needed to keep such a huge confidence, this is unlikely.
- Dealing with the past requires cool heads, and a major exercise of sharing information to replace the dialogue of the deaf, not the sort of one sided passionate advocacy displayed by Doug Beattie and Jeff Dudgeon, however strongly they feel about alleged institutional bias against the security forces and others feel about “equating victims with victim makers”.
- We’ve argued in Slugger that the next steps should be an analysis of the consultation exercise and an options paper. This is standard Whitehall procedure. It should contain suggested amendments to the published draft Stormont House Agreement (a.k.a .the Legacy) Bill. It should be debated in public, not reserved for the parties in (semi) private. There are many other stakeholders and not only victims. Indeed who hasn’t an interest?
- What’s often forgotten is that the outcome is not purely a matter for the Northern Ireland parties or indeed the community. Primary responsibility rests with the UK government to legislate. They have three of very big irons in the fire of their own : one, should the conditions for prosecuting soldiers be amended – a matter of furious dispute within the Conservative party? And two, what exactly are the requirements of national security that limit official disclosure on public interest grounds to either a court, a public inquiry, or to scholars on certain conditions?
Adds later.. A report in the Irish Times on the Morton report is typical of the factors that keep popping up to complicate the picture.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said police in the North do not have to disclose the so-called Morton report, which recommended a shake-up of RUC Special Branch in 1973. In reaching its verdict, however, the ICO confirmed for the first time how significant the report could be for understanding the history of policing in the Troubles.
The Kenova report on “Stakeknife” from John Boutcher, the chief constable of Bedfordshire will burst upon us some time next year.
- Ending the deadlock over a hierarchy of victims may need more than trade-offs but radical solutions such as separating out remedial help from justice as a mainly welfare issue on the basis of need . Justice may require a public report on the state of evidence in police files by the proposed HIU or an independent commission before proceeding further. Other legal instruments of disclosure apart from trials such as further inquests or a standing commission on the legacy should be examined. A public inquiry into the murder of Part Finucane may yet be necessary as the definitive investigation into alleged collusion.
- The elephant in the room remains an amnesty, but much water will have to flow down the Lagan and the Thames before it comes to the fore.
- Above all just now, we have a government in transition – to put it politely – and it will not be able to express clear policy preferences for some time. A wide ranging public legacy debate extending beyond the political parties is needed to cut through hierarchy of victims, national security “coverup,” systemic bias against the security forces, lack of evidence to prosecute alleged terrorists, and finally an amnesty; all the old chestnuts that have to be faced if there is ever to be movement in the lifetime of today’s youngest. All of this ranges far beyond the Stormont talks and should dealt with entirely separately. Otherwise they risk getting bogged down in the battle of the narratives. In the end limited legislation at Westminster may be needed without the wholehearted consent of an Assembly majority. For that radical constitutional move probably entailing an amendment to the Assembly’s justice powers, a stable majority at Westminster would be required and would take some considerable time.
- Most important of all, the decisions on prosecuting and on passing verdicts rests with a justice system that will remain rigorously independent.
Can the huge legacy of “the dirty war” be left to anything like a normal justice system? Providing the answer needs the sort of determined leadership and vision of the overall public interest informed by expertise to see it through, that is nowhere on the horizon today.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London