Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Dealing with the past holds key to our future

There must be a public debate on the meaning of reconciliation and forgiveness, writes Mike Nesbitt

The MPs who make up the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday expressed their view that Northern Ireland is not ready to progress the recommendations of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.

Today, the Commission for Victims & Survivors publishes a public opinion survey which shows how little people know about those Eames/Bradley proposals beyond the recognition payment.

We are also going further than the recommendations of the consultative group to ask the public whether they think we need to address the past at all, whether by the Eames/Bradley formula or some other means.

For the commission, addressing the legacy of the Troubles is not an option - it's at the core of the devolved administration's 10-year strategy for victims and survivors, as one of the three key areas of work alongside addressing current needs and building for the future.

We're pleased to note the public agree, with two out of three people saying we must deal with our past. Encouragingly, there is a very positive focus on this being done within the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness.

In fact, these concepts score among the highest positives in the entire questionnaire, both with the population generally and with victims and survivors.

That said, we think there is a need for a public debate on what we mean by these concepts because we are not sure there is a common understanding of what reconciliation or forgiveness entails.

However, we note the public have much less of a positive nature to say about the proposals from the Eames/Bradley group.

They thought they had some solid suggestions, but clearly the public have not been listening, because they were deafened by the suggestion of a £12,000 recognition payment to all the families who were bereaved.

Eames/Bradley made 31 recommendations, but 90% of the population - think about it, that is nine people in 10 - either could not remember any of the other 30, or did not think there were any. (And we could do worse than begin with a debate about what we mean by reconciliation). And there was no majority in favour of the payment among any of the demographic groups we surveyed.

Eames/Bradley saw progress coming across four major themes. Three were built around broad justice issues, continuing investigations, a non-judicial process of 'information recovery' and a strand of thematic investigations, such as alleged collusion.

The fourth strand of activity they recommended was addressing societal issues.

This is an area CVSNI had already identified as crucial, so we are pleased that the public have identified these societal issues are the most important aspects of dealing with the past.

Tribunals of inquiries do not fare well in the public consciousness. Only a quarter of the population support the concept of more, basing their opinion on the need to achieve truth and because of the number of unanswered questions which prevent families achieving 'closure' (a big concept, 'closure', which is another debate altogether).

Half the population say no to further tribunals, chiefly because they perceive these inquiries as a waste, primarily of money, but also of time, in that they do not deliver.

So, as an effective means to an end, tribunals leave a lot to be desired in the public consciousness. There is no majority opinion telling us they are the most effective means to the end.

The current tribunals, Saville/Bloody Sunday excepted, were all the product of a political deal at Weston Park in 2001 as part of our long peace/political process.

Those politicians will note that only one in five people thinks the peace process would not have happened without that deal.

So, there is the key issue to be addressed - can we design a process which will command better public confidence and deliver more effectively for the people they are supposed to serve?

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