Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Karen Bradley needs to end delay and begin setting up a legacy process for all victims

We cannot continue to over-burden the courts and police service with dealing with the past, says Alban Maginness

Relatives of victims of the Glenanne Gang outside the Court of Appeal last week
Relatives of victims of the Glenanne Gang outside the Court of Appeal last week
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Unsatisfactory though it may be, until a systematic legacy process is put in place to deal with the past, the families of victims killed during the Troubles will have to continue to rely on our over-burdened courts for effective action and proper inquiry into their loved ones' deaths.

Last week, the Court of Appeal, in a significant and important judgment, found against the PSNI and in favour of the relatives of the Glenanne Gang killings in determining they had a legitimate expectation that an overarching investigation would be conducted into alleged collusion between the security forces and the UVF in the mid-Ulster area in the 1970s.

The Court of Appeal found in favour of a 2017 High Court ruling that the police had frustrated any chance of an effective inquiry investigation into the alleged crimes of the Glenanne Gang.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan made it very clear that the onus was now on the PSNI to complete and publish a thematic report. There already had been a draft Historical Enquiries Team report that was 80% completed before it was halted by the PSNI.

In response, the new PSNI Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, announced that on foot of the Appeal Court's judgment, an independent police team would investigate alleged collusion between the security forces and the gang.

This was a great legal victory for victims' relatives, such as Eugene Reavey, whose three brothers were murdered in 1976, and SDLP councillor Denise Mullen, whose father was shot dead on his own doorstep in front of her mother in their home in Moy, Co Tyrone, in 1975. All of these killings are connected to the Glenanne Gang, who were allegedly involved in 120 murders.

The relatives are searching as much for truth, as for justice. But the more the police fail to carry out their duty in this respect, the more people will feel frustrated and blame the police for allegedly covering up.

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And yet while people can legitimately blame the PSNI, it is because we have no system of dealing properly and effectively with the past that we have to currently rely on the police to deal with legacy issues.

Retiring Chief Constable George Hamilton stated on many occasions that the police were not the right body to deal with legacy issues. It was his belief that the time, money and resources spent by the police on such matters were draining the police of important manpower. He not unreasonably suggested that the police should be policing the present, not the past.

Which brings us to the publication last Friday by the Government of its legacy consultation responses garnered last year. Unbelievably, this consultation exercise was carried out by the Government to test the public's opinion on the mechanisms to deal with the past that were part of the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014.

This involved the setting up of a number of new proposed agencies - primarily, an Historical Investigation Unit to examine unsolved killings during the Troubles.

Also an independent Commission on Information Retrieval, which would provide a way for families to learn about the fate of their murdered relatives and make thematic conclusions about the Troubles.

In addition, an Oral History Archive, so that victims themselves or victims' families can have their stories officially recorded, acknowledged and conserved for posterity. Even this non-contentious and simple idea, which has worked well in other parts of the world and would give grieving families a therapeutic outlet, has been stalled.

By the sound of the unofficial government commentary on the consultation, it would appear that there will be further administrative and political delay in order to achieve the impossible - that is, some sort of local political consensus. This is despite the fact that the Stormont House Agreement was the product of a local political consensus in 2014. Unfortunately, the DUP have since resiled from that agreement.

If this delay and failure to implement Stormont House continues, both the courts and the police will be seriously overburdened and stretched in dealing with the past.

The Government must proceed without waiting for the DUP and legislate at Westminster for a legacy process based on Stormont House. Because these matters are not devolved, the responsibility for putting them into law lies with the Westminster government.

As Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson has said, there has been enough delay. She has publicly called upon Secretary of State Karen Bradley to provide "a clear action plan and timeframe for delivering on the needs of people who want truth, justice and acknowledgement".

Karen Bradley should redeem herself by taking heed of the Victims Commissioner's advice in immediately ending delay on this festering issue and start implementing the legacy aspects of the Stormont House Agreement.

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