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ANALYSIS: People sick of being ‘nailed to political walls’

View From Stormont looks at NI's past decades of Credit: Tommy Hassan

Think about being lost on a political roundabout - not knowing which way to go, writes Brian Rowan. That’s the story of our past. This talking in circles for more than a decade about what to do and not do.

It began in 2007 with the Eames-Bradley Consultation, talked its way through the Haass/O’Sullivan negotiations and, then, into Stormont House.

And so, this conversation continues in this endless circle of time.

Within weeks, another consultation is expected on the measures agreed in the Stormont House talks in 2014.

Will it bring us any closer to decision time and the implementation of some agreed structure - some breakthrough after this long stand-off?

The Victims’ Commissioner hopes so.

Judith Thompson tells View From Stormont: “What I hear from the people I work with is that they are really sick of being nailed to different people’s political walls.”

The Commissioner says it is “not justifiable in any way that we can continue to push this down the road”.

Meanwhile, artist Colin Davidson, who painted the highly acclaimed exhibition Silent Testimony, reminds us that, for those who suffered loss, the past is “their right now”.

“It's the hardest thing,” Davidson tells View From Stormont.

“But I wonder if we strip it away from Protestant loss, Catholic loss, loss at the hands of this group and that group, and look at it as human loss, that we may be able to start to get a way through this.”

Professor Louise Mallinder, Judith Thompson, Colin Davidson, and Professor Kieran McEvoy. Credit: Tommy Hassan

The consultation, expected to begin within weeks, will go beyond the structure agreed in the Stormont House negotiations almost three years ago.

That included a new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and a Commission tasked with gathering information for families - an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

The Government continues to believe that these proposals - alongside an oral history archive and reconciliation element - represent the “most effective option”.

But the consultation will also invite responses on “alternative approaches to addressing the past”, including a statute of limitations and amnesties - things that have become part of the past conversation and which cannot be ignored.

Details of this emerged in a recent government response to an earlier report and recommendations from the Defence Select Committee.

That Committee had recommended “... the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces”.

Coupled with some truth-recovery process, the Defence Committee report in April of this year, before the General Election, also included: “It will also be a matter for the next Government to decide, after appropriate consultations, whether the statute of limitations should also cover all Troubles-related incidents.”

Writing here, in April of this year, I asked the question: Could such thinking find its way into some public consultation here?

– Brian Rowan

Law Professor Kieran McEvoy of the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University is very clear about what any such move would mean: “If there’s going to be a statute of limitations that’s an amnesty. It’s an amnesty that will apply to all of the actors in the conflict - both state and non-state.”

The consultation is expected to have three sections - what is happening now in relation to the past; what the government thinks should happen, which is the implementation of the structure agreed in the Stormont House talks; and this third section which will invite responses on those different approaches recommended elsewhere.

In the past decade of talks, which began with Eames/Bradley, the same proposals keep emerging: “We have had a broad blueprint of what needs to be done,” Professor Louise Mallinder, from the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University, tells View From Stormont.

“We've had the Haass process, we’ve had the Stormont House Agreement. That blueprint has remained broadly the same ...

“There seems to be consensus that we need truth, we need acknowledgement, we need all these processes ... the longer it takes to address, the increasing pain.”

Both Kieran McEvoy and Judith Thompson argue that things do not have to wait for political agreement and a new Executive - that Westminster can take the process forward.

“We need action,” Professor McEvoy says.

Ten years after the talking began, are we arriving at some moment of decision?

Those involved in tonight’s discussion for View From Stormont certainly hope so.

  • View From Stormont - Monday 20 November at 11.15pm