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Troubles amnesty and Truth Commission are ruled out by Robinson

By Noel McAdam

Peter Robinson has ruled out a Truth Commission to deal with the legacy of the Troubles ahead of talks being held today with Secretary of State Owen Paterson.

The First Minister also insisted any agreement between the parties on how to deal with the thorny issue of Northern Ireland's troubled past must not include any form of amnesty.

"It is important no-one in Northern Ireland believes they can walk away from crimes they committed in the past," the DUP leader stressed.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed in January, Mr Paterson has summoned all the Stormont parties for detailed discussions about the past, which has been effectively shelved since the controversial Eames/Bradley report three years ago.

Following a number of short delays, the Secretary of State was also due to meet Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and has pencilled in a series of meetings over the next few weeks.

Mr Robinson said, however: "As we deal with the past so we will build the future."

But recognising that, while difficult, the issue of the past cannot be ignored, he also set out his party's position and stressed it will:

  • Not support any "perversion" of the definition of victim;
  • Not support the setting up of a Truth Commission;
  • Not accept any amnesty or proposal allowing some to escape justice.

"What would be the purpose of having a Truth Commission when we know without a doubt that the terrorists will not be coming forward to tell the truth?" he asked. "All you would get, once again, would be the police and Army in the dock and history being distorted.

"The DUP will not allow any talks to become a rewriting of history. We will not support any perversion of the definition of victim or dilute the hurt and suffering caused.

"For any talks to succeed there must be an acceptance that part of the problem in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland is the refusal by some to accept the part they played in creating these problems."

The First Minister said despite the time which has elapsed since some crimes were committed "the need for justice is still absolutely vital".

And he added: "Any process dealing with the past must not include an amnesty or proposal which could allow some individuals to escape justice.

"The unacceptable and unrealistic proposals of others should not hinder discussions about how the past can be dealt with. It is important no-one in Northern Ireland believes they can walk away from crimes they committed in the past."

Mr Allister, meanwhile, said: "I have little expectation that the powers that be - at Stormont or Westminster - will ever permit justice for innocent victims, because of the threat that would pose to the perverse political arrangements whereby the victim makers rule over us.

"Whatever lip service is paid to justice for victims, there is no quest for such, no appetite to bring the perpetrators to justice, because there is too much vested interest in protecting the disreputable status quo.

"In fact, innocent victims are an embarrassment to the political establishment, both to those who made them victims and those who brought the victim makers into government."

Mr Paterson, however, insisted the local parties must own whatever process is agreed.

"The sad problem regarding the past is that there is no consensus that we have detected ... This is very much an issue that has to be sorted out with local parties.

"While the Government intends to play its full part in any future process lead by the parties on resolving legacy issues, the lead has to come principally from within the community in NI itself," he said in a letter to East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long.

In a speech at a party association dinner on Saturday, Mr Robinson went on: "If we are a divided society the investment gains we have made may be at risk.

"We cannot go back to the bad old days; it is time to move forward and build a society for all."

Background

Suggestions for dealing with the past have included:

  • An independent Legacy Commission with a five-year timeframe and £100m bursary
  • A Reconciliation Forum to help the Commission and the existing Commission for Victims and Survivors
  • A new agency to subsume the Historical Enquiries Team and part of the Police Ombudsman's Office to review investigations, and examine the truth behind a number of events and issues
  • A computer database to include every single incident in the Troubles which could form the basis of an archive for historians and academics

A tortuous process which shows little sign of resolution

Just over two months ago Peter Robinson told MLAs: “We want to make sure that in dealing with the past we do not jeopardise the future.”

But one thing seems certain. We will be considerably further into the future before any agreement on dealing with the past is reached.

More than eight months ago parties in the Assembly combined on an Alliance Party motion to urge the Secretary of State to convene round-table talks on the issue.

But instead after meeting First Minister Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Assembly Speaker William Hay and others, Mr Paterson opted for separate party sessions — for which he has been criticised.

The legacy of the Troubles, and how to handle it, had remained in political limbo for more than a year with no sign of progress amid growing concern it could be shelved indefinitely.

Three years ago the landmark Eames/Bradley report politically self-destructed over its call for a £12,000 ‘recognition payment’ for victims’ families.

The Consultative Group on the Past was established in June 2007 and its report, containing 31 recommendations on issues such as victims, justice and information recovery, was delivered in January 2009.

The Executive’s Programme for Government — on which public consultations have just ended — includes commitments to developing a ‘shared future’, through the so-called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy.

But Mr Robinson has also said part of dealing with the “dark, difficult days” which victims have come through would be looking at the Maze/Long Kesh site and the building of a peace and conflict resolution centre.

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