Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The time has come to draw a line under Troubles

As of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the slate should be wiped clean and our society and policing should look forward, write Desmond Rea and Robin Masefield

Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972

Many of the commentators on Nelson Mandela's death last week recalled his advice that no problem was too intractable to be solved. That approach should serve our community well in the current round of discussions on the past and other issues between Dr Richard Haass and the panel of parties.

The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past (published in 2009) noted that, as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 2001, 3,523 persons were killed; of this total, 2,055 were attributed to republican paramilitary groups, 1,022 to loyalist paramilitary groups, 368 to security forces and 80 to persons unknown. In addition, nearly 50,000 people in Northern Ireland sustained injuries in as many bombing and shooting incidents.

Much progress has been made since then. We believe that our primary objective has to be sustaining the peace process and creating a society in which such atrocities can never recur. At the same time, victims at their point of need must be a key concern.

Last week, we published in book form, entitled Dealing With The Past, a note that we had previously submitted to Dr Haass and the panel. In doing so, we sought to inform and widen the public debate and to set out our views on how Northern Ireland might deal with its troubled past, while also achieving a healthy balance with the future.

In describing the range of initiatives to address the past since the Belfast Agreement, including the part played by the Policing Board and the Historical Enquiries Team, the book noted that former Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde cautioned against allowing a hierarchy of death to be created, with most reinvestigations and enquiries focused on victims of alleged state involvement, whereas the majority of deaths and injuries resulted from the actions of paramilitary organisations.

And last month, the Attorney General, John Larkin, observed that the larger constituency of victims who sustained loss at the hands of non-state actors do not see any comparable tools available to them.

Also in November, a report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate estimated that the costs to the criminal justice system of dealing with the past over the next five years could amount to nearly £200m, adding "the criminal justice system had not been structured to deal with the past, nor could it provide a comprehensive solution to legacy issues".

Furthermore, last week's report by Judge Smithwick again pointed up the limited accounts of their own roles in the past which individuals may choose to provide to inquiries, even though they are eligible for immunity.

Accordingly, we do not believe that society and the peace process would be best served by continuing to facilitate a situation where, say, members of the security forces stand trial, where others whom our society has democratically elected to positions of responsibility on the basis of previous inter-party agreements, may or may not remain subject to potential prosecution for their activities decades ago.

We recognise the strength of the reaction in some quarters to what has been summarised as a call for an "amnesty", but we believe that in society's wider interests, and taking account of the precedent of the early release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement, further imaginative departures from the criminal justice norm are required. As of, say, April 1998, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing look to the future.

To this we would add that Northern Ireland should draw a line in a "national" act of contrition and that the full programme of agreed measures be ratified in a Northern Ireland referendum (a point that was itself proposed in a recent editorial in the Belfast Telegraph).

We do acknowledge, as did the Consultative Group On The Past, the value for victims of being provided with additional information about the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones. But we believe this can be achieved consistent with our other recommendations.

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Professor Sir Desmond Rea was chairman of the NI Policing Board from October 2001 to May 2009. Robin Masefield was latterly the director of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and before that the head of the policing reform division in the Northern Ireland Office

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