Yesterday’s opposition day debate in the Commons on Dealing With The Past initiated by the DUP was attended by only just enough GB MPs – about 20-odd – to make up the quorum of 40. Have a browse in Hansard to get the full flavour if you’re feeling strong enough. Sinn Fein’s absence is a pity. In parliament a real debate is better than sermonising. If they were present there would be a lot more authentic flavour and less of the sound of peace balm being poured over public events – G8 in Fermanagh memorable in the sunshine, Doire city of culture all sorted and – Titanic Quarter –Wow! Yes, yes but not for everybody, the folk you’re supposed to be discussing.
Opening the debate, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson explained how he was bringing forward a private member’s bill to exclude from the legal description of a victim those who perpetrated violence. This would roll back the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which implemented the GFA at a time when the real effort should be made to go forward and stands no chance of success. Nor will it make headway at the Haass talks. So why do it Jeffrey?
After that bruising episode over cancelling the Maze peace centre his other approach was to try to seize the initiative from Sinn Fein in setting the narrative of the Troubles. “We will not stand for a process that seeks to paint the forces of the state as the bad guys and the terrorists as the good guys.” His tactic was to list the statistics of responsibility for killings. Well we know who comes out top. (I extract the stats given by Jeffrey and Willie McCrea at the end).
Jeffrey Donaldson’s principles
The first principle is that victims have the right to justice and must continue to have that right. The second principle I want to be clear about is that there must be no amnesty for the perpetrators of terrorist violence. Thirdly, as I have already stated at length, the definition of a victim of the troubles in Northern Ireland should exclude those who were killed or injured as a result of engaging in an act of terrorism, or convicted of a terrorist-related offence. We hope that that will be taken forward either in this House, or through the Haass process. Fourthly, the glorification of terrorism should not be facilitated or allowed, and if the law needs to be strengthened in that regard, it should be strengthened. This is a free country and a democracy, and we are proud of freedom of speech, but there are times when we have to step in and say that what people say and how they behave is irresponsible, provocative and should stop.
In the light of the Glenanne gang revelations the SDLP’s Mark Durkan called for the law to be changed to allow the Historic Enquiries Team to widen the access to cases reviews at present limited to relatives.
The Pat Finucane Centre will soon publish a book called “Lethal Allies” by Anne Cadwallader, which looks at some very dark aspects of the troubles. It relates to a number of cases—10 in particular—that have been investigated by the Historical Enquiries Team, but the reports have never been made public because the HET reports are offered as the private property of the families. That is one of the reasons why I tabled amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to give the Secretary of State new powers and new responsibilities to do more to consolidate the value of the HET’s work and draw on its work. It should not just be left to the Pat Finucane Centre or somebody else who happens to have had the reports shared with them. That is something that we, as a Parliament, should take more responsibility for.
This seems eminently sensible but the government wasn’t biting, at least not yet. Theresa Villiers (the secretary of state, in case you’d forgotten) took refuge in irrelevance . The trouble is, with so little left to do, British ministers now sound more impotent than they really are.
There is no doubt that some want a broader initiative, a so-called “overarching” process, and they have asked the Government to deliver it. I understand that, and of course the UK Government are prepared to play their part in dealing with legacy issues, but I am also very clear that we do not own the past. The reality is that for any process to succeed it must command a substantial consensus among the Northern Ireland political parties and across the wider community.
Hear, hear but what process might be on offer that might succeed?. If Theresa had a notion she was keeping it to herself This debate reflected what feels like a hotting up contest for moral advantage in shaping the character of the new post- Troubles Northern Ireland than anything that will benefit victims. If dealing with the past is the starting point, the augury is poor for the Haass talks. Just now the tilt appears to be in favour of more struggle and less sharing, despite recent gestures by the First Minister. Is Jeffrey’s move full-on DUP policy? We ask again: are there cracks below the DUP façade? In their superficially more calculating fashion Sinn Fein is equally unsure which way to face. Can Haass or anybody else help them out?
The statistics of responsibility for violence, as presented by the DUP
I remind the House that the Sutton index, which tabulates and records all the deaths associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, is very clear that of the 3,531 deaths recorded to date, the Army was responsible for 297. Many of those were entirely lawful and legitimate, and were carried out by soldiers acting in the course of their duty to protect human life. The Ulster Defence Regiment, in which I was proud to serve, was responsible for eight deaths. When one hears the attacks that are made against the integrity, valour and sacrifice of the Ulster Defence Regiment, one would think that it was responsible for many more. I reiterate that those deaths were the result of soldiers acting in the course of duty. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is also demonised at times by Irish republicans, was responsible for 55 deaths. Interestingly, the Garda, the Irish police, were responsible for four deaths and the Irish army for one.
(On the security forces record, some will add “acknowledged” responsibility)
Let us look at the record of the paramilitary organisations. On the republican side, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation, which were part of the same grouping, were responsible for 135 deaths and the Provisional IRA was responsible for 1,707 deaths. The Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters were responsible for 260 deaths, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was responsible for 430 deaths
However, when we look at the current process for dealing with the past, whether the Historical Enquiries Team, the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, or an inquest or inquiries funded by the state, the vast majority of resources to examine the past in Northern Ireland are devoted to the 10% of killings, with a scant amount devoted to the 90% of killings
The Provisional IRA was responsible for the deaths of 1,706 people up to 2001. Of those, 497 were civilian casualties, 183 were members of the UDR, 455 came from regiments of the British Army and 271 were members of the RUC. Of its victims, 340 were Northern Ireland Roman Catholics, 794 were Northern Ireland Protestants, and 572 were not from Northern Ireland. The university of Ulster also states that the IRA lost 276 members during the troubles. However, in 132 of those cases, IRA members either caused their own deaths as a result of hunger strikes, premature bombing accidents and so on, or were murdered due to allegations of having worked for the security forces.
We need closure, but we must not allow republicans to rewrite history or romanticise their crimes.”
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