Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Labour: We owe Hyde Park bomb families an apology for catastrophic John Downey error

It would be inappropriate to unpick elements of the Northern Ireland peace process, but the rights of an IRA fugitive should not have been considered more important than the soldiers brutally murdered on that day, says Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis MP.

The flag-draped coffin carrying Lt Anthony Daly, the Blues and Royals officer killed in the Hyde Park bombing in 1982.
The flag-draped coffin carrying Lt Anthony Daly, the Blues and Royals officer killed in the Hyde Park bombing in 1982.
John Downey at the Old Bailey
John Downey at the Old Bailey
Ivan Lewis MP
Ivan Lewis MP

The implications of the judgment in the John Downey case will reverberate for some time and raise fundamental questions which the family and friends of the Hyde Park victims and the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have answered in full.

Some have suggested the UK Government and more specifically my party should recant for the introduction of the so called "on the run" administrative scheme. I cannot accept this despite the understandable anger some have expressed.

It would be a failure of leadership and integrity to be retrospectively selective about key elements of a historic peace process which ended 30 years of violence and terror.

A process which required unionists to share power with sworn enemies. Enemies who in some cases had perpetrated serious acts of violence against them, their colleagues or loved ones. To accept Northern Ireland has to reflect and respect the cultural identity of the minority community and acknowledge that community's right to their aspiration for a united Ireland  - albeit only ever with the consent  of the majority.

A peace process which required republicans to also share power with a foe who they saw as an oppressive majority; giving up and disavowing the use of violence to achieve political objectives while entering into a power sharing devolutionary agreement in a Northern Ireland which remains under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

These were historic, painful compromises on both sides which through history had seemed unachievable.

To make them possible decisions were taken in the course of multilateral and bilateral negotiations which were neither neat nor tidy, at times were unorthodox and unconventional, and can only be judged fairly in the context of how much was at stake at different stages of the process.

To be clear the choices available were frequently not between ideal and good - just the certainty that failure would lead to a return to violence and hatred for yet another generation.

Peace processes by their nature are never perfect or easy. They require all participants to take a deep breath swallow hard and not allow any moment or issue in time to circumvent the big prize of an end to violence and the chance for a new beginning.

That is what people like Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and Jonathan Powell did and I'm proud they did so under the banner of a Labour Government.

It is what successive Irish government leaders did and why John Major deserves credit for his role in laying the foundations for the peace process.

David Cameron was right when he said it would be inappropriate to unpick any or all of the elements of the peace process when announcing an inquiry, which we fully support.

Perhaps, most of all, the Northern Ireland politicians who risked their lives, challenged their supporters and in some cases put the prize of peace ahead of their own parties short-term interests, deserve our eternal respect.

However, in defending the peace process we owe the families of the victims of the Hyde park bombings both answers and an unequivocal apology.

Of course, for the catastrophic error which has once again accentuated the pain which for them never goes away and lessens the likelihood of them ever getting truth or justice. But also for the crass insensitivity of those who chose to focus on the perceived wrong Mr Downey suffered.

Is it any wonder people feel angry when the rights of an individual, who is innocent until proven guilty, but who faced sufficient evidence to justify his arrest, appear to be more important than the soldiers brutally murdered on that day?

It is similar to the anger people rightly feel when some seek to claim equivalence between an republican or loyalist paramilitary bomber killed in the course of an attempted bombing and a civilian or soldier killed by one of their attacks.

Of course, the families of all concerned deserve the support of services established to specifically support victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland. But there should be no attempt to suggest moral equivalence between those who lose their lives in these very different circumstances.

The Government was right to pursue the Downey case in the courts and those who suggest otherwise have clearly not been listening to the central demand which unites the vast majority of victims groups in Northern Ireland. They want truth, justice or a combination of the two.

I do not agree that peace would be best served now and in the future by denying victim’s families any right to seek answers and accountability for the loss of loved ones.

Whether those concerned are the vast majority who were killed by IRA or loyalist paramilitaries or others who are alleged to have been killed unlawfully by military personnel, supposedly "drawing a line" with an across the board amnesty would do nothing to heal wounds or help create a better environment for reconciliation.

Through being denied due process the families of the Hyde Park victims are far less likely to get either the truth or justice they deserve. That is the worst element of an appalling error which the Police Service of Northern Ireland have rightly apologised for.

It is important that the reason for this error is established but also the inquiry provides independent confirmation that no amnesty was being applied overtly or covertly.

The Present Government has confirmed this to be the case as have political colleagues who had a central role in the establishment and operation of the scheme.

I have every confidence in these assurances but public confidence requires this to be subject to independent examination and reporting by the inquiry.

There are those who argue the fall out from the Downey judgment means the all party talks on the Haass recommendations dealing with flags, parades and the past should be put on hold. I disagree.

The crisis of the past seven days should serve to have the opposite effect on all political parties and the UK and Irish governments.

Peace, stability and power sharing are at their most fragile for many years. When tested by events such as contentious parades, flag flying decisions or revelations from the past sections of Northern Ireland society are regrettably prone to default to the old tribal sectarian divides.

This coupled with a continued political vacuum will only give succour to extremists on all sides and exasperate real and significant security concerns.

So, my challenge to Northern Ireland’s political leaders is to confound conventional wisdom and reach an agreement on parades and the past either in advance of their annual visit to Washington for St Patrick’s day or at the very least prior to May’s local and European elections.

Prior to the US visit, not to please the President, Vice President or Richard Haass, but because this is an annual moment when Northern Ireland has a window to the world.

When people glimpse through that window it is important they see hope and momentum not despair and pessimism.

If this is not possible then the elections should be a platform for politicians to face the electorate with self confidence that courageous political leadership will be attractive to the silent majority of voters who want their politicians to settle issues such as parades and the past.

They yearn for a normal politics which focuses on jobs, investment, the cost of living crisis and Public services. Those who shout the loudest frequently do not represent the will of the people.

Some will claim that no agreement on the past can be made prior to the judge led inquiry reporting. This is not the case.

It is widely know that the most progress has been made on the past.

Nothing the inquiry reports will alter the key elements already proposed of a new independent review and investigative body with the power to refer cases to the police replacing the Historical Enquiries team and a new truth recovery process.

No new system will be perfect. But the framework proposed has the potential to be truly victim centred and bring greater levels of truth and justice.

Any agreement on the past will have to be accompanied by a resolution on parades and a longer term process to deal with flags and symbols.

Even more of a reason for attempting to meet the timescale I have identified.

Surely, it cannot be in the public interest for this year’s marching season to begin with the issues which caused so much tension last year and continue to be a source of disruption unresolved.

Ultimately it is for Northern Ireland’s political leaders to decide on the timing of and nature of any agreement. But with three successive years of elections ahead there will be no easy time to make the tough choices and painful compromises which are unavoidable.

Ivan Lewis MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

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