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Stormont crisis: State obstinacy most to blame for deadlock on past


Theresa Villiers may make an announcement this week

Theresa Villiers may make an announcement this week

Theresa Villiers may make an announcement this week

The Stormont parties have been criticised for failure to agree on flags, parades and the past – the issues on which the Haass talks foundered last December. Why don't they get on with it, comes a chorus of condemnation from London and Dublin.

Here's a better question – why doesn't Theresa Villiers get on with it? She represents the British Government here, and there's no party to the conflict which has shown itself less willing to co-operate in any probe into its role in shaping the past.

The final document presented last December by Richard Haass and his deputy, Meghan O'Sullivan, envisaged the establishment of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval. The ICIR would have the assistance of a "Themes Unit" tasked to investigate "the causes and patterns of violence, and revealing institutional responsibility".

Haass and O'Sullivan suggested 11 themes for the ICIR to pursue. These included state collusion with paramilitaries and the 'shoot-to-kill policy'. The chances of the British authorities co-operating with an investigation into these areas are remote, if not non-existent

Shoot-to-kill policy? That would be a reference to the RUC shooting of six men in Co Armagh in 1982. Five of the six were members of either the IRA or the INLA, although none was armed at the time they were shot. The sixth was a 17-year-old with no political or paramilitary involvement. The killings were widely believed to have been retaliation for the killing of three RUC officers in a landmine explosion in Lurgan.

Official obstruction delayed inquests into the deaths for 30 years. Coroner John Leckey finally set April last year for the opening of hearings. But just two months prior to the scheduled date, the British Government destroyed files crucial to Leckey's investigation.

Last week, The Detail published excerpts of correspondence between the coroner's office and Sir Nicholas MacPherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury. MacPherson wrote that, "In February 2013, a number of file series were destroyed ... Files relating to the Stalker/Sampson inquests were within one of the file series that was destroyed."

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John Stalker of Greater Manchester Police and Colin Sampson of West Yorkshire had investigated the killings in the mid-1980s. Neither of the reports was ever published. Now we find that some or all of the relevant documents have been burned or shredded by officials acting on government instructions. The action would appear to be in breach of human rights law, in that it denies the bereaved families the full inquiry they are entitled to.

But the government represented by Villiers shrugs its shoulders – before issuing another statement expressing frustration at the failure of local parties to agree a process for establishing the truth about the past and "revealing institutional responsibility".

As for collusion: successive British governments have adamantly refused to come clean about the role of MI5 and the Force Reaction Unit in the killing of Pat Finucane and scores of others. Nor has there been disclosure of the facts of the 1997 murder of Raymond McCord junior by the UVF in cahoots with members of the RUC Special Branch etc, etc.

The clearest indication of British governments' attitudes to dealing with the past was set out in the 2005 Inquiries Act which repealed the 1921 law under which the Bloody Sunday Inquiry had been established and detailed new rules for future inquiries.

The new rules give the government – not parliament, not the judiciary – authority to set any inquiry's terms of reference, to change the terms of reference, to suspend or terminate the inquiry at any point, to restrict or deny public access to hearings, to prevent publication of evidence, to ban publication of the report itself.

In a section specifically related to the North, the Act lays down that, "A Northern Ireland minister may not order an inquiry into any event occurring prior to 2nd December 1999, when devolution took place in Northern Ireland, or during any period when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended."

In other words: We might (or, then again, might not) sanction inquiries into matters where political responsibility can be traced to local parties. But as for anything which happened on our watch – that's none of your business, even if it involves the murder by our agents of your husband, wife, son, daughter, neighbour, friend.

In fact, especially if it involves murder or other criminality by our agents.

Local parties can largely be blamed for the impasse over flags and parades. But when it comes to by far the most significant and painful of the outstanding Haass issues, dealing with the past, the British Government is the greatest obstacle to truth and progress.