Bloody Sunday debate exposes doubt and disagreement over dealing with Northern Ireland’s past

No points to the Commons and Lords for the scheduling clash between the debate on lessons from the Bloody Sunday inquiry in the Upper House and Lord Saville’s personal appearance before the NI Select Committee yesterday. MPs failed to lay a glove on the now retired Supreme Court member over the epic 10 year time scale and £190 million cost of an inquiry whose impact casts a long shadow over the whole public inquiry system.. MPs were naturally caught between welcoming the public reception to the Report and its massive cost. The session got off to a blundering start with DUP MP David Simpson declaring :

You only focused on the day.” To which Saville inevitably replied ” Several hundred, perhaps a thousand pages were devoted to before the day.”

The standard of questioning barely rose from that level – as if MPs none of whom sounded as if they had read much of the report dared cross a top judge in command of his brief. Saville as the press reports confirm, was unrepentant:

 ” If you try to do it on the cheap you come unstuck. Lord Widgery was asked to do it quickly and boy, – if I may say so- did he come unstuck.”

The Lords debate was more concerned with the lessons that might be learned form the chequered Saville experience. What if anything might replace public inquiries?

There was much handwringing but little else. Only Carswell vs O’Loan rose to the level of events. The former police Ombudsman Lady O’Loan and the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and retired law lord Lord Carswell classically laid out the opposing arguments, with Carswell – presumably speaking for much of the legal establishment – opposing further lengthy investigations into the Troubles ( even though, he might have added but didn’t, lawyers might be expected to make a lot of money out of it).

 

 Should the desire of some to pursue inquiries to the very end prevail, or should the interests of the community prevail in drawing a line? I have come to the conclusion—which I must express unequivocally, though I fear I find myself in disagreement with many noble Lords who have spoken—that those who say it is in the public interest to call a halt to further inquiries are right.

People have been hurt—many badly and some dreadfully. Much can and should be done to help them in various ways. However, as a society we badly need stability. One of the best ways of achieving that would be a long period with as little disturbance as possible. Furthermore, Northern Ireland is now in the process of tackling the many problems of today. It needs all the impulse and creativity that it can summon, untrammelled by the weight of old divisions and antipathies. To this end, the talents and energies, both emotional and practical, of its people must be harnessed. That can only be for the public good.”

Baroness O’Loan flatly contradicted him:

“With the deepest respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, it is surely inappropriate to refer to those who seek investigations into the murders of their loved ones as “picking at scabs”. It is said that the investigation of past atrocities costs too much and that it could undermine the peace. Indeed I was told on occasion that I should not report because I would destroy the peace process, destroy the RUC, destroy the PSNI, et cetera. None of this happened. As the Prime Minister said, the revelation of the truth makes us stronger.”

..the alleged “shoot to kill” deaths investigated by John Stalker and later by Colin Sampson were referred to my office. I initiated the work, having read the lengthy investigation files created by Mr Stalker and Mr Sampson. The work is massive, but the United Kingdom does have legal and moral obligations.

If the relatives of those murdered in England, Wales and Scotland can expect investigation, why must the situation be different in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom? To decide not to investigate is effectively to give impunity to all those who have killed.

I have previously suggested—I do so again—that there should be one independent investigation unit charged with investigating all the unsolved deaths of the Troubles. It should have full police powers and be properly resourced; it should incorporate the Police Ombudsman’s historic inquiries, the HET inquiries and any current police investigations of deaths which occurred during the Troubles. This would obviate the necessity for the current duplication of work and it would be cheaper to run because one could utilise the current combined costs of the PSNI historic investigations, the HET and the Police Ombudsman historic investigations.”

The British government will produce a view “early in the New Year.”But in the end, the key decisions will have to be taken by the Executive and the Assembly who will have to pay all or most of the costs. Is a specific decision  to  be made to wind down all the facilities for special inquiry into the Troubles? 

What do the main parties want? Can they ever agree? Although Sinn Fein publicly calls for an international tribunal, republicans are hardly likely to welcome probes into IRA savagery towards Catholics and the detailed exposure of informers.  And what pressure can there be on former IRA members to come clean when the record of new prosecutions is almost nil?

On the other side, the DUP choose not to follow the logic of their own compelling whataboutery ( see below ) and want to ” move on.”

This debate and the select commitee hearing  showed not only that legislators in the main don’t know how to proceed but that they are even reluctant to grasp the issues fully. To guide future policy, a fundamental question behind Carswell vs O’Loan has to be faced: do major investigations increase public confidence or weaken it? Invoking the reaction to the Billy Wright inquiry, the government seem to believe the latter.

After Saville, Dealing with the Past continues to drift. Privately many believe in doing nothing special, hoping it will fade away when the HET complete their work in say, three years time.

Extracts from key speeches follow.

 

Lord Shutt of Greetland. Government spokesman on NI in the Lords
 

 

There also remains a demand for public inquiries into a number of specific legacy cases. The Government’s overall position is clear: there will be no more open-ended and costly inquiries. The response to the recent report of the Billy Wright inquiry was much more polarised and showed that even an inquiry lasting six years and costing £30 million can be accused of not having answered critical questions.

..the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is listening to the views of people from all parts of the community. He intends to set out the Government’s thinking early next year.

Baroness Royal shadow Leader of the Lords ( Lab)
 

 

So what now of the inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane? What about the deaths of the 11 civilians at Ballymurphy in 1971, an incident where some of the soldiers on duty on the day were the same service personnel who were to be in Londonderry six months later? What about an inquiry into the Omagh bombing? To focus on the Ballymurphy case, in the context of the announcement that this is the end of the line for public inquiries, will the families find it slightly confusing that the Secretary of State recently met those who lost their loved ones at Ballymurphy? Perhaps it raised expectations of success in their call for just such an inquiry.

The HET is half way through its case load and it has spent all its allocated money. The scale of the historical case review is unprecedented and the HET has neither the human resources nor the budget to conduct complex inquiries like the Bloody Sunday or the Billy Wright inquiries. The Government cannot rely on the underresourced HET to deal with all the remaining cases, especially any future complex inquiries. The Billy Wright inquiry cost £35 million and that was for just one incident and one death. There are cases remaining of the complexity and profile of Billy Wright and it seems clear to these Benches that the HET is not the mechanism to address them. I also remind the House that, while funding for public inquires comes from central government at Westminster, the budget of the HET is supplied by the Government at Stormont.

However, this is not a time to stand still and tell the HET how to handle its workload. The situation in Northern Ireland is peaceful, but still fragile, as recent violence has made clear. It is crucial that we build a consensus to find a process to replace inquires, if they are to be ruled out. We must find a process to deal with the complex past; we cannot shut it down

Lord Eames, former Cof I Primate, co-chair of Eames/Bradley inquiry
 

 

I urge Her Majesty’s Government to accept that the time is right, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to urge the local parties in the devolved Administration to take the courage to address how they deal with the past on a cross-community basis. For obvious reasons—for political reasons—that is a very sensitive issue. No local political party grasps with open heart the issue of how to deal with the past. However, until there is that sort of agreement and the establishment of some structure to make that possible, the drip-by-drip agony will continue.

 

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LORD Dubs former Lab NI minister

Other events happened in Northern Ireland, and every speaker so far has referred to them and said that we have to do something about them. I do not think that we can just ignore Ballymurphy because there was no whitewash Widgery-type inquiry about it. We cannot ignore it because that also involved soldiers. In Claudy, although no British troops were involved, I think that our Government were in some way complicit in transferring a particular person into Donegal and out of our jurisdiction

So we have a responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, because they, above all, are entitled to closure and to some greater inner peace in their minds about some of those events.

I am not totally clear as to the best way ahead, but that of course is a responsibility for the Government. All that I hope is that they will look again at the conclusions in that report.

One outstanding issue is Finucane. There have been inquiries into Billy Wright; we have had the report. The Nelson and Hamill inquiries continue. I do not think that we can leave Finucane alone; there is too much concern about it. Next year, there will be crucial Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, and I would not want the Finucane issue to bedevil the discussions and debate in that election campaign.

 

Lord Bew, historical adviser to Saville, political adviser to David Trimble as Unionist leader
 

 

In certain cases there appears to be evidence that there has been an element of collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries, but the number of republicans killed by loyalist paramilitaries is just over 30. So even if all these were cases of collusion in which state forces had helped the loyalist paramilitaries, that would be less than 1 per cent of the total of those who died during the Troubles.

It is also worth bearing in mind—and it has already been referred to—that for every one member of the IRA who fell during the Troubles, eight members of the security forces fell. Those are very important facts that have to be kept in mind.

We need now an attitude towards the past that does not privilege certain deaths. It is quite correct that we have led the way in those cases in which the state has behaved badly, but in a modern democracy we need to have more than that. Why? Because it demoralises the centre ground in Northern Ireland and those people with conventional morality who cannot figure out this way of dealing with matters. Most importantly, we rely on our Army and security services to help us in another and probably greater threat of terrorism. We need those in our Army and security services to know that while we will of course be vigilant with respect to wrong-doing, we also respect the work that they are doing and that the way in which we approach these matters, including the story of the Troubles, reflects that respect.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven ( ex-DDP for England and Wales)
 

 

The inquiry took far too long and cost far too much but, when the report came, in its central findings it was exemplary. It is meticulous, it is scrupulous and, above all, it is fair.

Lord Tebbit: former Cons cabinet minister under Mrs Thatcher, with his wife, injured in the Brighton bomb, 1982

When I asked a little while ago if there would be an inquiry into the murders at the Grand Hotel, Brighton 26 years ago, my noble friend Lord Shutt told me:

“The Government have no plans to hold a public inquiry in relation to the terrorist attack on The Grand Hotel, Brighton, in October 1984.

It would not take long or cost much to establish who was behind the murders at Brighton—or indeed those at Claudy or Omagh, I suspect. IRA/Sinn Fein have claimed responsibility in some of those cases, and I understand that the identities of those who commanded the terrorist organisation at relevant times are well known to the authorities. Surely they could be invited to defend themselves against the suspicion that it was they who procured those bombings, not least that at Brighton. Or is it that the deaths at Brighton count for less than those at Londonderry? Or is it as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, might imagine—that the Queen’s soldiers are sitting ducks for inquiries and the members of the Army Council of Sinn Fein/IRA are, like the godfathers of the Mafia, not just too well connected and too powerful to be brought to justice but too important for the truth about them to be not merely known but to be published?

Lord Morrow, DUP

In an economic climate such as this, this £200-million Saville inquiry—perhaps the most expensive foregone conclusion in history—borders on the obscene.

It should be remembered that no one has ever been charged, let alone convicted, of the murders of the two RUC men that effectively sparked the events of Bloody Sunday. Moreover, the RUC lost more than 300 of its officers during the Troubles and, for more than 200 of those murders, no one has ever been tried, convicted or put before a court. Of course, for those officers of the law there will be no public inquiries. There will be no inquiry into the Remembrance Day massacre at Enniskillen; the massacre of the innocent at the La Mon House Hotel; Bloody Friday, when a series of bombs were planted strategically across Belfast leaving few routes of escape; Teebane, where workers were slaughtered in their van as they returned home; Kingsmill, when the IRA separated the Protestants from the Roman Catholics and gunned them down in cold blood; the Ballygawley Road/Omagh Road massacre of soldiers; Narrow Water, when 18 paras were massacred; and Darkley, when a small Pentecostal church was invaded by the IRA and people were murdered as they worshipped. There was the murder of Lord Mountbatten and the bombings at Hyde Park, Warrington, Brighton and Canary Wharf. I could go on. The list is seemingly endless.

It has been said in this House that there is but one inquiry that needs to be dealt with. I think that I have demonstrated quite clearly that there is more than one. It strikes me that there are 101. So why was there a Saville inquiry? The answer is abundantly clear. Political expediency was the order of the day, although that is no reflection on those who carried out the inquiry. This had absolutely nothing to do with truth and justice. Purely and simply, this was an attempt to appease the unappeasable—to soften the iron will of those who had terrorised Northern Ireland in a systematic campaign of annihilation and who were increasingly demonstrating their capacity for destruction and mayhem on the mainland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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