Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Publish call over Troubles reports

Mark Durkan said many families could not face the burden of publishing the reports by the Historical Enquiries Team into the deaths of their loved ones
Mark Durkan said many families could not face the burden of publishing the reports by the Historical Enquiries Team into the deaths of their loved ones

The families of victims killed in Northern Ireland should not be left to decide whether to publish reports in to their deaths, a SDLP politician has said.

Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle, said many families could not face the burden of publishing the reports by the Historical Enquiries Team in to the deaths of their relatives during the Troubles.

Proposing changes to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, he said that instead the Government should decide whether to reveal reports by the team, which was set up to review more than 2,500 cases between 1968 and 1998.

Mr Durkan said he also wanted the Government to be given the powers to set up wider reviews, which would investigate wider patterns of killings in Northern Ireland.

He said: "At the minute we have the fairly inadequate arrangements whereby when the Historical Enquiries Team report on a particular case, that report is given to the families concerned.

"That report is treated as though it is the property of the family and it is only published if the family wishes to publish it and only in the manner the family chooses to publish it.

"Many families themselves have not felt that they could not discharge the burden of necessarily publishing that work, while other families have been able to publish that work and have been able to turn to the assistance of others to have that work published as well."

But the DUP's leader in Westminster Nigel Dodds said he opposed any changes to the legislation which could allow the Government to set up wider reviews in to deaths during the Troubles.

He said: "O ne man's analysis is another man's prejudiced point of view and (comes) with political baggage.

"I can see all sorts of difficulties in finding someone or some people who would be again acceptable right across the board, who everybody would say this is fair, and who would be trusting enough to say we are going to allow and permit this person to do their analysis and whatever they come up with is something then that we will broadly be content with.

"I think it's a recipe for further contention and arguments about the past."

Mr Durkan later withdrew his proposed changes.

Today's debate came as MPs tried to make final amendments to the bill, which is expected to clear the Commons later tonight.

It will then go to the House of Lords, where it is expected to be scrutinised further by peers.

The major change implemented by the bill will see donors to political parties able to reveal their identities for the first time.

Due to the security situation in Northern Ireland, the identities of party political donors have always been kept secret. But under changes introduced by the legislation, if donors agree their identities will be revealed for the first time.

When the bill reached committee stage earlier in the year, Alliance Party MP Naomi Long (East Belfast) called for the changes to be introduced from this coming January rather than next October.

But now the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has tabled an amendment along with Ms Long which will mean that from January ministers will be able to reveal the names of donors to political parties if they agree.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis said: "While it is right any processes about the past are led by the Northern Ireland Executive, there must be full and consistent engagement by the UK and Republic of Ireland governments - both because of their central role in the Troubles and the fact likely solutions will require their active participation, legislative and financial support.

"My view is the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, on the whole, in many cases has been effective and has delivered some level of justice to victims. I think we should applaud that and we should draw attention to that at every opportunity.

"However, there are also some serious, legitimate concerns that have been raised about elements of the HET's work that have to be given serious consideration going forward."

Northern Ireland Minister Andrew Robathan said, while he was sympathetic with SDLP's efforts to deal with Northern Ireland's troubled past, the Government could not support Mr Durkan's amendments.

"I understand that your party would like to see more done to address legacy issues, and I sympathise with that to a large extent, and I join him and I think everybody in the House, in wanting to see a way forward which commands the support of all the parts of the community and all parties in Northern Ireland," he said.

But he added that the debate's interventions made it clear that there was not universal support "for this way forward", and he called for US diplomat Dr Richard Haas to be allowed to get on with the job of chairing the all-party talks aimed at tackling some of the contentious issues, including parades, flags and dealing with the past.

Mr Robathan said: "The Government is supportive of these efforts, we hope that progress will be made and we really should, both as a House and as a nation, await the outcomes of both the talks and his report."

Moving the Government's amendment to bring forward a change to donation rules, Mr Robathan said all donors are on notice permanent anonymity will come to an end from January.

He confirmed donations up to January 1, 2014, will be permanently excluded from being revealed.

Mrs Long welcomed the Government's plans to bring forward the date to January 1 from October 2014, but said: "I have to qualify that with slight disappointment that we have not been able to go further as part of this bill and actually see the rules in Northern Ireland and the exemptions for Northern Ireland removed so that we can move in to line with the rest of the UK on this matter."

She added: "There is a suspicion and a perception in the minds of the public that politics operates for the benefit of the few and not the many.

"That those who have money and influence are able to wield that to their own advantage, and I think it is hugely important in terms of rebuilding trust and confidence in the political system that people have transparency in respect to donations and are able to scrutinise for themselves whether donations made to political parties have influence on policy and decision-making at Government level.

"That currently is not possible as even though those donations are declared to the Electoral Commission they are not able to be published and I believe that the time has come for the veil of secrecy to be lifted on these matters."

She said the amendment was a good step in that direction by clarifying the position for donors.

Mr Robathan said the legislation marked a "further step towards normalisation for Northern Ireland".

He said: "This is the first bill since the imposition of direct rule in 1972 which has not been enacted in haste as the result of a political crisis or indeed to implement a political agreement.

"Instead, it has been subject to public consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and thorough scrutiny following the usual timetable in this House. I suggest it is something to celebrate that we are now able to consider matters thoroughly and without the urgency that has been a feature of previous bills."

The Bill was unanimously agreed at third reading and has now finished its passage through the Commons.

Peers will now scrutinise the legislation in the Lords.

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