By Patrick Corrigan
In the teeth of multiple elections, can anyone seriously imagine that Northern Ireland’s political parties are going to agree compromises on emotive issues like flags and parades?
Yet given the all-or-nothing approach that has been adopted to the three issues discussed in the recent talks chaired by Dr Richard Haass, if flags and parades cannot be agreed upon, then neither can issues relating to ‘the past’. Victims of the Troubles find themselves trapped in a stalemate, caused by a perennial political failure to agree on symbols and marching.
The proposals on dealing with the past, set out at the end of the Haass talks represent an important step forward in securing truth and justice for victims of human rights abuses and violations. While not perfect, they offer a firm foundation on which progress can be made and legislation can be framed.
But the failure to implement the Haass proposals means the thousands of Troubles victims who suffered at the hands of paramilitaries or agents of the State in decades past might yet again see the opportunity for justice and resolution snatched away. Just as they did with the Eames-Bradley process five years ago.
Flags, parades and the past were uncomfortably lumped together in the Haass process – united only by the inability hitherto for politicians to agree solutions to any of them. Post-Haass, we need to decouple the strands to move things forward.
On flags, Dr Haass recognised early in the talks process that the parties were unable – or unwilling – to agree any solutions around his table. The Commission on Identity, Culture, and Tradition was a way of kicking the issue into touch. This process would conveniently take eighteen months to deliver – that is, past the dates, not just for the local and European elections, but also past the next Westminster poll in May 2015. Failure to agree.
On parades, even though considerable progress seems to have been made, the parties apparently could not agree on issues such as a code of conduct for marchers and bandsmen. Failure to agree. Again.
But on dealing with the past, there was – much to the surprise of many – remarkable progress, especially given the apparent distance between the parties going into the talks.
The Haass proposals set out, in considerable detail, new mechanisms for delivering truth and justice for the victims of human rights violations and abuses after decades of violence and years of delay.
The proposed Historic Investigations Unit (HIU) would replace the current patchwork system of investigations in Northern Ireland which have proven inadequate to the task of establishing the full truth about human rights violations and abuses committed by all sides during the Troubles.
The HIU would review all cases involving deaths, with families being able to choose whether or not they wished to engage with the process. Where the evidence exists, cases would be referred to the Public Prosecution Service – crucially, there’s no Attorney General-approved ‘blanket amnesty’ to be found in the Haass proposals.
Those who were seriously injured would also potentially have access to the HIU; a welcome development and the first time that the rights of people with serious injuries have been acknowledged in the design of an investigatory mechanism in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval would assist victims with truth recovery and provide deeper, thematic analysis of what happened over three decades of violence.
Yet, two months on from the inconclusive end to the Haass Talks, and despite weekly party leaders’ meetings, there is still no agreement on implementation.
In recent weeks the Alliance Party’s David Ford has submitted a paper to other party leaders outlining how his Justice Department could bring forward legislation to deliver some of the proposals. But he needs political buy-in from the other parties, to take it forward.
Equally, clearer leadership from the UK and Irish governments that they are also ready to legislate, fund and cooperate with new mechanisms to deal with the past is needed to help ensure that Haass does not go the same way of Eames-Bradley, gathering dust while the suffering of victims continues. It needn’t go that way, but it will require effort to convert words into action.
With elections on the horizon, politicians have the chance now to show that politics can finally work for those who suffered so much when politics failed.
As it stands, so long as the mantra ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ continues to be recited, progress in dealing with Northern Ireland’s troubled past is a hostage to its troubled present.