Pursuing cases is leading victims down a false path

Belfast Guardian

Labour’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the historic 2007 settlement which established devolved government with old enemies sharing power, has now delivered seven years of peace and stability nobody imagined possible amid the terror and mayhem of the Troubles.

Yet “the past” continues to haunt Northern Ireland, dragging it backwards, and recent political controversy has hardly been illuminating.

Former Labour secretaries of state like Shaun Woodward and I, seeking solutions, have been accused of sidelining victims, or putting the peace process before justice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1998 Mo Mowlam appointed probably the world’s first victims minister, Adam Ingram, highly thought of by families of ‘the disappeared’ and other victims. She had previously commissioned the first serious analysis of victims’ needs – the We Will Remember Them report by Kenneth Bloomfield.

I appointed the interim victims commissioner in 2005 and commissioned the comprehensive Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past which reported in 2009.

Richard Haass’s report in 2013 revisited much of Eames-Bradley and its suggestions on dealing with the past are widely supported.

Yet the politicians remain deadlocked, with much in common privately but argumentative publicly.

There will never be a way of dealing with the past that will satisfy everyone. But there can be mechanisms put in place to acknowledge and recognise the suffering of thousands of people which both Eames-Bradley and Haass (right) set out.

One practical example – which came from the Wave Trauma Centre, Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community victim support group, which also works with the families of ‘the disappeared’ – is the proposal for a pension for the severely injured, who have been unable to build up an occupational pension, to give them some security and dignity as they grow older.

But what it needs above all is the political will to deal with the issues in a compassionate, humane, comprehensive and inclusive way and not to be stuck with ‘our’ victims and ‘their’ victims across the divide.

While it is for the devolved institutions to deliver on this, the fact that the current British government appears completely disengaged is hardly helpful.

Nor is deliberate distortion of the arguments. Those who, like me, argue for a new approach are attacked for promoting an ‘amnesty’, even a ‘blanket’ one, for Troubles-related crimes, when I am on record in parliament and the media rejecting the very idea.

In truth, it is no answer to pursue prosecutions for Troubles-related crimes, especially when, in 90% of these cases going back 40 years or more, the evidence cannot be retrieved.

That is simply leading victims down a false path when they need redress and justice in another way, as suggested by Eames-Bradley and Haass, joined, intriguingly, last year by Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin.

The recent detention fiasco around Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams – whatever his IRA past, an indispensable figure in the peace process – illustrated the problems of the current vacuum.

So too will be any prosecution of British soldiers currently being investigated for shooting innocents at Bloody Sunday in 1972 – crimes for which David Cameron rightly apologised. If they are put on trial when unsolved paramilitary crimes cannot be prosecuted, what sort of even-handed justice is that?

Northern Ireland’s politicians need to have the courage to agree a new approach and move on from the past of horror and evil, or their society will keep getting dragged dangerously back to it.