Troubles body wants apologies and pledges
Groups involved in the Northern Ireland Troubles could apologise for their role and pledge never to use violence again as part of an ambitious five-year reconciliation plan unveiled today.
More than a decade after the Good Friday Agreement charted a political path out of violence, an independent body has produced a blueprint to heal a society still divided after decades of conflict.
The £300 million plan aims to investigate thousands of murders, search for the truth behind controversial episodes, tackle sectarianism and put agreed remembrance ceremonies in place after five years.
The most controversial recommendation, however, is that the families of all victims, including dead paramilitaries, receive a £12,000 payment as a recognition of their loss.
The Consultative Group on the Past, led by former Church of Ireland Primate Lord Robin Eames and former vice chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board Denis Bradley, published its proposals in Belfast today at a ceremony attended by hundreds of people affected by the Troubles.
The group's 190-page report, compiled after 18 months of consultation, made more than 30 recommendations which will now go to the British Government for consideration.
"In Northern Ireland we are dealing with communities that have been in conflict for a long time, each as likely as the other to be in denial of the wrong that has been done in its name and of the goodness of the other," the report said.
"One of the goals should be to enable these communities to face the past together in a way that enables each to admit a substantial share in the accumulated and generic guilt of all the hostility ridden years."
The report's authors, who had access to sensitive security material, raised concerns over collusion between security forces and loyalist groups and revealed that the number of agents recruited by the intelligence services was much higher than ever suspected.
The report recommended:
- A five-year Legacy Commission with an international chairman to investigate many of the more than 3,600 killings. In a twin-track approach, it would offer relatives the chance to pursue prosecutions or forgo that to instead seek information on how their loved one died.
- It would work with a Reconciliation Forum to tackle issues such as sectarianism, while a £100 million bursary would fund projects to tackle social issues made worse by the Troubles, such as addiction.
- Relatives of every victim, regardless of their role in the conflict, would receive a £12,000 payment as a recognition by society and the State of the pain they suffered. Elsewhere, the report called for an end to the hierarchy of victims, often along sectarian lines, as being fruitless.
- There will be no general amnesty for crimes from the Troubles, but evidence gathered in the information recovery unit of the Legacy Commission cannot be used in court and the Commission may draw a line under the past when its five-year remit ends.
- The British and Irish Governments, plus the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont, should implement the plan, while political leaders should back an annual day of reflection and reconciliation.
- At the end of the five-year period, political parties and the remnants of paramilitary groups should sign a declaration never again to kill or injure on political grounds, with the possibility that the Commission could recommend an apology to promote reconciliation.
- Public inquiries into the past which are under way would finish, but no more would be established. The winding-up of police units looking into the past would also help offset the cost of the new way forward by an estimated £100 million.
- The Omagh bombing would not be covered by the new Commission, but it could help families resolve questions over the attack.
The report opts to describe the Troubles as a conflict rather than a war, but it also highlights plans to tackle issues of major controversy:
- The report said allegations of collusion between security forces and loyalist killers can be the subject of a report by the Legacy Commission. It said: "Based on the information presented to the group, it considers that there remain serious questions to be answered concerning allegations of collusion."
- It notes some communities bore the brunt of the Troubles and suffered at the hands of "their own paramilitaries", plus a heavy security presence. It noted: "While the Group recognises that intelligence gathering is an integral part of security activity, the sense of oppression was even further increased by the numbers of people who were recruited by the State and induced to act as informers. The Group was told that a significant number of such agents were recruited, many more than was imagined at the time."
- The report said those exiled by paramilitaries during the Troubles, claiming the figure is 4,600 people, should be allowed to return.
- The report makes no recommendation on so-called On The Runs, those sought in connection with crimes from the Troubles. But if the books are closed after the Legacy Commission's five-year lifespan, the On The Runs could benefit.
- The public inquiry into the loyalist murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, and evidence that security forces colluded in his death, has not started as the family objected to the terms of the probe promised by government. The report said the Legacy Commission chaired by an international figure could inquire into the case.
- The document also challenges Northern Ireland's communities, its social, business and political leaders, and underlines the need to consider major social changes.
- It challenged the Christian Churches on ending sectarianism and raised the issue of education - with most Catholic and Protestant children taught separately.
- It called for legislative changes to open up services and employment opportunities to ex-prisoners.
- The report said: "The lives of those lost cannot be restored."
It added: "The dignity and courage of many victims and survivors is a testimony to their strength and an invitation to all in society to do everything in our power to stop our differences and prejudices spiralling downwards into the kind of violence that we have known in the past.
"It is in all our hands to make sure we, as a society, do not create a new generation of victims."
Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson welcomed the proposals, on the basis that his organisation will still investigate complaints against police, but be released from probing its current tally of 120 cases from the past.
He said: "The recommendations are challenging and would seem to offer a very reasoned attempt to start a process that can deal with the many issues arising from Northern Ireland's past."