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Fresh start agreement: Cross-community group accuses Northern Ireland political leaders of betrayal

The largest cross-community victims group in Northern Ireland has accused political leaders of betrayal.

The Wave Trauma Centre represents victims of an IRA bombing at a fishmonger's on Belfast's loyalist Shankill Road which killed nine innocent shoppers, the family of Jean McConville who was kidnapped, murdered and her body disposed of by republicans and those bereaved by alleged loyalist collusion with police in more than a dozen north Belfast killings among others.

Tuesday's Stormont "Fresh Start" deal between the British and Irish Governments and Northern Ireland's two largest parties failed to resolve the legacy of thousands of unresolved Troubles murders and countless badly injured.

Wave chief executive Sandra Peake asked: "Where is the fresh start for the bilateral amputees, the blind, the paraplegic and the severely traumatised?"

The deal, entitled A Fresh Start: The Stormont House Agreement And Implementation Plan, does not include previously proposed new mechanisms to find out what happened during the conflict, bring people to justice and establish support measures for the bereaved and injured.

Ms Peake added: "The reality is that they have abandoned and betrayed victims and survivors who have repeatedly been promised that there would be an inclusive and comprehensive way found to deal with the legacy of the past."

Thousands of unsolved murders from the 30-year conflict were due to be investigated as part of last year's Stormont House Agreement.

However some nationalists have accused the British Government of not meeting its obligations on transparency on its role during the conflict and ministers have now said they will "reflect" on a way forward as part of the new pact.

Ms Peake added: "The two Governments and political parties have said that dealing with the suffering of victims and survivors is central to Northern Ireland moving forward.

"They can no longer say that with any credibility."

She said victims had been told to wait repeatedly only to end up with nothing.

"Now they have been given a document that with absolutely no hint of irony is being called a 'Fresh Start' and there is nothing beyond a vague reference to continuing to 'reflect'.

"Where is the 'fresh start' for them?

"Where is the fresh start for those who were left in limbo when the Historical Enquiries Team was wound up without even the courtesy of a few hours notice?"

She questioned where is the fresh start for those who wanted their stories and testimonies of suffering recorded and acknowledged.

"Where is the fresh start for the bilateral amputees, the blind, the paraplegic and the severely traumatised who have to rely on a Private Members' Bill passing before the Assembly winds up to give them a modest pension to supplement the benefits that they are forced to live on because of their injuries?

"But perhaps the saddest, most depressing aspect of all this is that while they are shocked, disgusted and beyond disappointment they are not surprised."

The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Judith Thompson, said there was overwhelming disappointment.

"Once again it is those who have suffered the most and compromised the most to build a better future in Northern Ireland who are still left wondering if, and when, they will ever get the opportunity for acknowledgement, truth, justice and some form of reparation for the pain and suffering they have endured."

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the families of some loyalist terror victims as well as people killed by British troops, have vowed to continue their quest for justice.

In a hard hitting statement, KRW Law accused the British Government of using national security issues as an "excuse" not to open its files.

The statement said: "Not all victims of the violent legacy of the conflict in the north of Ireland want the same thing.

"There is no imperative at work in the motivation of victims. Some want nothing but to forget and reconcile their loss as best they can and move on with their everyday lives. Others want retribution. Others, the majority we suspect, simply want truth, justice and accountability - accountability which is different to retribution but which might contribute toward reconciliation. They want the file of their lost one marked closed but on their understanding that truth and justice has been accounted for, at last.

"Each move in the slow sad dance of litigation is contested, blocked and fought over.

"It will not, in the absence of a form of investigation of these violent acts which satisfies not only human rights but the rule of law, deter either ourselves or our clients. We, and more importantly they, are not going to go away."

Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten express 'deep disappointment and frustration'

Victims groups have expressed "deep disappointment and frustration" at the failure of the Stormont talks to tackle the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past.

The Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten, which represents 200 families, has accused Westminster of ignoring its obligations under human rights legislation to disclose the truth about the actions of state agents.

In a joint statement they said: "In their homes around the country, those who lost loved ones in the conflict will be privately grieving and angry at London's insistence that it must be able to redact/censor reports from the proposed Historical Investigations Unit on "national security" grounds.

"The PFC and JFF consider it totally unacceptable for the state to demand the right to conceal the actions of its agents in bombings, shootings and murders during the conflict. This was not part of the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014.

"If London had this right, it could mean that families would never discover that state agents, informers, UDR soldiers and RUC men had a role in their relatives' murders."

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) claimed the UK Government was effectively pulling down the "national security shutter" on legacy related investigations.

Brian Gormally, CAJ's director said: "Let us be very clear - this is not a question of the 'local parties failing to agree'. It is the UK Government that has vetoed progress by demanding the right to use 'national security' to cover up the unlawful activities of its agents.

"It will use state power to give impunity to state agents. In so doing, it jettisons the interests of victims and the truth, continues its violation of international human rights standards and undermines the rule of law."

National security concerns should not obscure scrutiny, says UN expert

The British Government should not use blanket national security concerns to obscure scrutiny, said a UN expert on truth-telling and justice for wrongdoing after conflict.

The credibility of Northern Ireland's institutions will continue to suffer while victims are asked to wait for redress of serious violations, said special rapporteur Pablo de Greiff.

The Stormont deal failed to address the legacy of unresolved murders and countless numbers of badly injured people requiring support. Sinn Fein blamed this on British Government failure to honour a previous agreement on full disclosure to meet the needs of victims.

Mr de Greiff said: "Although everyone must acknowledge the significance of national security concerns, it must also be acknowledged that particularly in the days we are living in, it is easy to use national security as a blanket term.

"This ends up obscuring practices which retrospectively it is often recognised were not especially efficient means of furthering security.

"In particular, national security, in accordance with both national and international obligations, can only be served within the limits of the law and allowing for adequate means of comprehensive redress in cases of breaches of obligations."

He said none of those involved in the conflict were neutral Troubles arbiters.

"This will also involve means for adjudicating issues concerning disclosure in a way that is credible to all."

Nationalists have pressed for more official information about state collusion with loyalists in killings.

Mr de Greiff called for equal rights for all in the judicial process and creating an overarching mechanism for connecting events of the past.

He said disclosure procedures will have to guarantee independence and impartiality and be seen to do so.

"Victims, some of whom have waited more than 40 years to see their rights violations redressed, are once again asked to wait longer. The credibility of institutions will continue to suffer."

The expert called on the government to staff judicial and police services adequately and warned failure to address the past had significant indirect costs.

Recommendations included creating a proper repository of records and archives, more psychological support and broader recognition of victims' rights.

A Northern Ireland Office spokeswoman said: "Although agreement on the establishment of new bodies to deal with the past was not possible this week as part of a wider agreement to secure Northern Ireland's devolved institutions, the Government will continue to work with Northern Ireland's political parties, Executive and victims groups on how we can move forward and achieve broad consensus for legislation.

"During the talks, it was never the position of the Government to take a blanket approach to national security. We are committed to giving full disclosure to the Historical Investigations Unit, once it is established, including information which, if it were disclosed generally, would damage national security.

"We are also committed to ensuring that the DPP and the courts and inspection bodies receive all such information so that prosecutions can be brought and justice can be done. Protective measures are needed in relation to public release of that information, if doing so would put our national security at risk.

"The UK has a clear obligation to ensure that people are kept safe and secure."

Key elements of agreement

Here are the key elements contained in the 67 pages of A Fresh Start - The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan.

Section A: Ending Paramilitarism and Tackling Organised Crime:

  • Signatories pledge a "resolute commitment" to complete process of ending paramilitarism and promise "most far reaching commitments ever taken to uphold rule of law and end paramilitarism".
  •  
  • The commitments, including undertaking to accept no instructions from such organisations, will be incorporated into the Executive's ministerial code of office and will also be required of all Assembly members.
  •  
  • Executive and two governments will meet in December to agree new measures to tackle organised crime and paramilitarism.
     
  • A Joint Agency Task Force, comprising police commanders and customs officials from both sides of the border, will report to ministers every six months.
  •  
  • Steps to speed up the criminal justice system, provide more support to victims and enhance forensic science capabilities.
     
  • Programmes established to prevent young people being drawn into paramilitary activity and to reintegrate former paramilitaries into wider society.
     
  • Executive will publish an action plan on tackling paramilitarism by June 2016.
     
  • A new four-member international body will monitor progress. The Executive will nominate two members of the panel, with the governments appointing one each. The panel will report annually to 2021.

Section B: NI Executive Financial Reforms and Context:

  • Previous commitments to reduce the number of Executive departments from 12 to nine by May 2016 and to cut the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 by the Assembly election after next go ahead.
     
  • Executive will be handed power to set its own rate of corporation tax with the intent of reducing the rate to the 12.5% levied in the Irish Republic by April 2018. Move is dependent on the Executive committing to a sustainable budget and implementing the rest of the Fresh Start agreement.

Section C: NI Executive Welfare and Tax Credits Top-Ups:

  • Reforms to the benefits system introduced elsewhere in the UK from 2012 will finally be rolled out in Northern Ireland through Westminster legislation, by way of a Legislative Consent Motion approved by the Assembly. An Act enabling Westminster to legislate on welfare in Northern Ireland will lapse at the end of 2016.
     
  • Executive has agreed to allocate £585 million over four years (a six year period was originally agreed) to top up welfare payments. £345 million will cover welfare claimants and £240 million will support those impacted by changes to tax credits. This policy will be reviewed in 2018/19.
  • A working group chaired by Ulster University professor Eileen Evason will decide exactly where the money will be spent.
     
  • The controversial so-called "bedroom tax" will not be introduced in Northern Ireland.

Section D: UK Government Financial Support:

  • The Government offered a £2 billion financial support package in last December's Stormont House Agreement (SHA).
     
  • It is boosting that package by a further £500 million to fund issues "unique" to Northern Ireland. This includes £160 million in additional funding, over five years, for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle dissident republicans (this money represents a continuation of additional Treasury support already offered to the PSNI); £25 million for the Executive to tackle continuing paramilitary activity (match-funded by the Executive); £60 million to build community relations through initiatives such as bringing down community "peace walls"; and £125 million, over five years, to address fraud and error in the welfare system.
     
  • Executive will have the ability to retain half of the anticipated savings accrued through reducing welfare fraud and error.
     
  • The Government has offered "further flexibilities" to enable £500 million offered in the SHA for shared and integrated education schemes to also be spent on shared housing projects.
     
  • The £150 million for the legacy bodies envisaged in the SHA will only be released subject to an as-yet-elusive agreement on the establishment of those bodies.
     
  • Series of new control measures to prevent Executive overspends will be implemented.
     
  • Executive has conducted an in year "monitoring round" to rebalance its budget shortfall.
     
  • The Government will undertake to assess the impact of corporation tax reductions to make future adjustments to Northern Ireland's block grant.

Section E: Irish Government Financial Support:

  • The Dublin government has pledged "targeted investment" in cross-border economic infrastructure.
     
  • It has committed a further £25 million to the £50 million it is already spending on the A5 dual carriageway linking Londonderry to Aughnacloy. However, the Irish government had previously committed £400 million to the project - an undertaking it pulled in 2011.
     
  • It will offer 2.5 million euro (£1.75m) for a "development fund" for the north west of Ireland.
     
  • The Irish government will also "explore further development" of the Ulster Canal's cross-border waterway links.
     
  • It will also undertake, alongside the Executive, a review of the stalled plan for a cross-border bridge at Narrow Water between counties Louth and Down.

Section F: Implementation of other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement:

  • Plans for a commission to examine the thorny issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition will proceed.
     
  • So too will a plan to transfer from Westminster to the Assembly the responsibility for regulating parades. Executive discussion paper will be produced to outline options on how to regulate parades and associated protests.
     
  • The agreement acknowledges the implementation of new mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, such as a new investigations unit and a truth recovery body, remain "work in progress" and signatories were "unable to find a way forward on some key issues".
     
  • The two governments have pledged to "reflect on options" for another process to achieve progress in this area.
     
  • Plans to set up provisions for the formation of an official opposition in the Assembly will proceed.
     
  • A new protocol will be agreed on the Assembly's contentious Petition of Concern vote blocking mechanism. It will include a pledge to only deploy it in "exceptional circumstances".

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