Uncertainty and the Stormont House Agreement
Local politics is locked down in talks about talks amid fears our malfunctioning Assembly could crumble – and the two major ongoing issues concern the Provisional IRA and Peter Robinson’s personal finances.
The degree to which the Provos were or were not involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan – whether any involvement was institutional, or concerns PIRA members acting without blessing from the organisation, in whichever form it currently exists – is understandably big news.
The same goes for allegations made about the First Minister, amongst others, and any dealings he had with Nama’s sale of its entire Northern Ireland property loan portfolio to US investment firm Cerberus Capital Management.
Whatever the truth of these matters, undeniably Northern Ireland public affairs are in a bleak place – and the above are not the only problems.
Stormont is in in peril and, at a time when both social and economic progress have largely stalled, discourse is dominated by issues that do not look five minutes into the future.
But, outside of our elected representatives, efforts are being made to look at how victims’ and survivors’ issues are moved on.
Scope wrote before about how the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), Amnesty International, and NI’s two universities were trying to move forward discussions based on the Stormont House Agreement (SHA).
In early summer the groups announced their intention to draft a model bill, adhering to the heads of agreement laid down in the SHA, outlining how the fine details of the agreed new structures for dealing with the past might work.
Model Implementation Bill
The SHA is an attempt to be all things to all people, identifying four structures with complementary roles designed to help us deal with a violent past:
- The Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) ‘an independent body to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths’
- An Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR) ‘to enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the deaths of their next of kin’
- An Oral History Archive ‘ to provide a central place to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles’
- An Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) ‘to oversee themes, archives, and information recovery’
In short: the HIU will replace the Historical Enquiries Team; the ICIR will be an opt-in service for victims who want to find out the truth about events that affected them, with any evidence gathered inadmissible in legal proceedings – but with such statements only being taken with victims’ say so; the oral history archive will gather first-hand experiences from the Troubles; and the IRG will oversee the others.
At the launch of the model implementation bill last week, however, it is clear there is still much work to do to convince victims themselves – an unfortunately jaded group by now, given years of initiatives that have failed in their mission to deal with the past.
Scope also recently attended the launch of a paper on gender principles for dealing with the past and, based on the discussions at both events, it is clear there are many different views among victims on how we should proceed.
The closest thing to consensus seems to revolve around a lack of confidence or, at least, a wariness about how well they will be served by either an implementation of the Stormont House Agreement – or some other accord that follows in its wake.
And, despite the fact many of our local politicians are happy to cite the needs and desires of victims whenever it suits them, there was also a lack of knowledge or understanding amongst some of them about the broad strokes of agreement laid down in the SHA.
Specifically, the fundamental purpose of the ICIR has not been explained, with fears of an amnesty for terrorists being raised – a word CAJ and the others were all keen to reject at the launch.
The accompanying explanatory notes to their draft bill is also keen to say this would not be the case.
On Wednesday the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, was herself at pains to say that the provisions of the SHA are definitely not an amnesty while the Northern Ireland Office published its own summary of measures from the December agreement:
“None of these proposals amount to any form of amnesty. This Government believes fundamentally in the rule of law and amnesties are not something that we would 4 contemplate. Where evidence exists for a prosecution of any crime in relation to the troubles, the law will take its course. That is one of the reasons why we are establishing the HIU to examine Troubles-related deaths and which will have powers to refer cases to the Northern Ireland DPP for a decision on prosecution…
“The ICIR will be separate to the criminal justice system and information provided to it will not be admissible in court. The ICIR will not provide an amnesty: it is the information as provided to the ICIR which is protected, not the individual (or the information if it is obtained by another means). No individual who provides information would be immune from prosecution if the required evidential test is satisfied…
“The inadmissibility provisions, however, will not confer any immunity from prosecution or suit for contributors. In line with the Agreement, no individual who provides information will be immune from prosecution for any crime committed, should the required evidential test be satisfied by other means. This means that the 5 Stormont House Agreement, paragraph 51. 28 same information as provided to the ICIR, obtained by another means, could still be used in legal processes against the individual. There is no amnesty.”
However, there are some problems here. Firstly, victims – and the general public – have such a low opinion of our administrators that there will be little faith either in these words of clarification, or assertions that SHA terms will not be bent or broken in some back-room deal designed to placate various shady interests.
The second issue is that the detail of Stormont House has not been adequately explained. Public debate has been dominated by arguments around SHA rather than in the detail of what was agreed.
On Monday during Assembly Question Time, acting First Minister Arlene Foster played down the model implementation bill and cited bad journalism as reasons why fears of amnesties have appeared – before saying the draft model bill is not what has been agreed by the political parties.
She was responding to DUP colleague Brenda Hale, who herself issued a media release saying the model bill amounts to “proposals by outside bodies and carry absolutely no weight within government.”
Neither DUP MLA, however, took any time to explain what the ICIR actually is – unlike Theresa Villiers – and acknowledge that the draft bill is actually an attempt to stick very closely to the SHE.
In fact, Mrs Hale provided a misleading comment distancing the DUP from the ideas in the model bill, when they were a key part of drawing up the SHA:
“The Stormont House Agreement specifically rules out any amnesty for terrorists and the DUP will ensure that no proposal will ever find support within the Assembly. I would hope that victims can draw reassurance from this. What we should be focusing on are the services so needed by victims and not proposals from outside bodies which have absolutely no chance of support.”
Never mind that this is a very confusing position for the MLA to take, what is most worrying is that – if the SHA is to ever get off the ground – some effort will have to be made to explain the rationale behind the ICIR. The above statement just kicks that into the long grass.
There has not been a clear and comprehensive public discussion about Stormont House and, specifically, the details of the comprehensive accord reached by our politicans on dealing with the past.
Without dialogue and an attempt to provide understanding of the proposed provisions, the public will be wary at best, furious at worst, about what is planned.
Which only makes it more depressing that, right now, the agenda is being led by allegations of fingers on triggers and hands in the till.
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