Charlie Flanagan TD: 'Victims justifiably feel let down - the people of Northern Ireland deserve better'
The politics that followed peace have not lived up to their promise, writes Charlie Flanagan TD. It's time to implement the Stormont House Agreement's mechanism for dealing with the past
More than 3,600 people lost their lives during the Troubles. Each loss scarred families, friends, communities and colleagues. Each death was a tragedy for the family concerned. Many thousands more were injured, often in ways that changed their lives forever.
The 30 years from 1968 to 1998 damaged not just lives, but also relationships and trust across society in Northern Ireland.
Since the Good Friday Agreement we - the Irish and British Governments, political parties, civil society across Northern Ireland and our international friends - have been working to rebuild those relationships.
There have been many improvements: Northern Ireland is an undeniably better place than during the years of conflict. The bond between London and Dublin has a strength that few would have predicted even two decades ago - reaffirmed earlier this week when Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Prime Minister Theresa May met in Dublin.
But the shadow of the past still falls across this progress. Trust and mutual respect remain lacking.
In my engagement with victims from across the community in Northern Ireland I have been struck by their sense - regardless of background - that the politics that followed peace have not lived up to their promise.
This is acutely clear in the failure to deal effectively with the legitimate demand for truth and justice. These issues transcend politics.
It has been clear for some time that the current mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles are simply not working.
They don't work for the police. They don't work for the legal system, as Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan told us last week.
Indeed, the absence of progress is corroding confidence in the law itself. The integrity of law officers is being unfairly maligned, damaging the system and hurting individuals.
Victims justifiably feel let down. This extends into broader society in Northern Ireland. Trust in politics and the political settlement is damaged, particularly when partisan advantage is allowed to override the common good.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. It is time to build the reconciled Northern Ireland that its people and all the people of these islands deserve. To do so, we must address the past honestly and respectfully.
Three Christmases ago, in Stormont House, we agreed a comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the past. Three Christmases have passed and legislation to implement that agreement has yet to be finally agreed.
It is time to implement the comprehensive mechanism agreed in December 2014.
As Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley wrote in their introduction to the report of the Consultative Group on the Past: "The divisions that led to the conflict in the first place are all too present and only by honestly addressing the past can we truly deal with it and then leave it to the past."
I believe that the principles which we agreed in Stormont House will allow such an honest and respectful way forward.
- promoting reconciliation;
- upholding the rule of law;
- acknowledging and addressing the suffering of victims and survivors;
- facilitating the pursuit of justice and information recovery;
- human rights compliance, and;
- a balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable approach.
These principles underpin the various interlocking mechanisms which the two Governments and parties to the Stormont House talks agreed could address the different demands of victims and of society. Each party had its say. All perspectives were respected in agreeing a comprehensive way forward.
These mechanisms include a Historical Investigations Unit, charged with investigating all Troubles-related deaths without prejudice. If those investigations reach the threshold for prosecution, then the law should prevail.
There should be no impunity, no amnesty for anyone found guilty of killing unlawfully. Where there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution, families should be given a report into the circumstances of their loved one's death, so far as can be established.
It was agreed that the Executive would take the appropriate steps to improve the functioning of legacy inquests - the Lord Chief Justice has made some helpful proposals in this regard, which now must be actioned.
An independent commission on information retrieval is intended to help families who want to get access to information regarding deaths, which would otherwise not be available to them.
An oral history archive would permit everyone who wants to tell their personal experience to do so.
An implementation and reconciliation group would be charged with promoting reconciliation. It would commission independent academics, who would work to ensure that false, or selective, narratives about the Troubles are not allowed to dominate in the interests of narrow agendas. That work would ensure that the ground is prepared for meaningful statements of acknowledgement.
In addition, it was agreed that the needs of victims and survivors would get access to high-quality services.
Given the many different experiences and expectations, I recognise that the proposed mechanisms will not meet the needs of every individual who has been touched by the violence of the Troubles. Neither do the current ways of dealing with the past.
I do believe, however, that, if implemented, the Stormont House mechanisms offer a more effective and timely way forward, with benefits for society in Northern Ireland as a whole.
The Irish Government is entirely committed to playing our part. Our commitment is to full co-operation, including disclosure of information and documentation. If necessary, we will change the law to permit this.
We will step up. It is time for all the parties to the Stormont House Agreement to step up, in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
- Charlie Flanagan TD is the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade