British government claims “We do not own the past.”

In recent submissions to the Council of Europe, the British government suggests that human rights violations in the north of Ireland which occurred under direct rule should be the responsibility of the devolved administration to clean up.

A number of cases had been brought to the European Court of Human Rights by families whose loved ones were killed by the State, including those of Gervase McKerr, Patrick Shanahan and Pearse Jordan. These cases resulted in the UK government being found guilty of breaching Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life – in that it did not provide appropriate investigative mechanisms when the right to life had been violated.
As part of that judgement, the UK government agreed to resource historical investigations within the Police Ombudsman’s Office and the Coroner’s Service and further agreed to establish the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) to ensure no further Article 2 breaches could happen.

The Office for the Supervision of the Execution of Judgements in Strasbourg regularly reviews such judgements and accepts submissions from NGOs and governments regarding compliance with them.

Recent submissions by Relatives for Justice (RFJ) (see also here) and the Committee on the Administration of Justice highlighted the concerns of victims at the slow pace on investigations both by the Coroner and the Police Ombudsman and, more recently, the announcement that HET – a keystone in the architecture of compliance with the judgement – was to be wound down.

The RFJ submission set out: “It is the UK government rather than local political parties which is responsible for implementing human rights and rectifying mistakes when found guilty by the human rights Court for infringement of the Convention.” This would be supported both by the fact that the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights was against the UK government and by the fact that the NI Human Rights Commission is answerable to Westminster not Stormont.

The UK government response to the NGO submissions displays a shocking lack of understanding of international human rights law, a clear agenda to pass responsibility for their failings to the devolved administration, all wrapped up in an almost cringe-worthy plea for mitigation.
It says “The UK government is clear that we do not “own” the past. It is right for the parties in Northern Ireland to own this process and to seek agreement on the past.”

The parties to the current round of talks need to ensure they’re not sold a pup on dealing with the past by taking on the responsibilities of the UK government. Likewise, the Irish government as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement have a chance to flex some muscle in Strasbourg by having the issue of the satisfaction of judgement re-opened

The Government’s submission to the Committee of Ministers concludes: “The current mechanisms and systems in place to deal with legacy issues place a very high burden on the PSNI and coronial system in Northern Ireland. In the meantime we must maintain our focus on increasing social cohesion and integration to move towards a genuinely shared future for the people of Northern Ireland. This should not be forgotten as a crucial element in working to overcome some of the hurt and divisions of the past.”

In summary, what the government in saying here is dealing with the past is very hard so instead we’re going to focus on trying to bring people together in the future instead. That’s more important that the fact we’ve been held liable in the European Court of Human Rights for breaching the European Convention on Human Rights, that we’ve agreed to a whole raft of measures to right the wrongs that were done but now we’re just not going to bother anymore because it’s too hard and too expensive and anyway the Assembly parties ought to be doing it now.

That simply doesn’t wash.

Imagine if someone found guilty of breaking any other law decided not to fulfil the conditions of their probation. They’d be hauled back into court and the punishment would be much more severe the second time around. That’s the threat the UK government should be under right now from the Council of Europe and that the Irish government ought to be reminding them of. It is very likely, too, that legal complaints seeking to enforce that threat are well down the pipeline.