The task of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland has been avoided due to lack of will, the retired judge who will head a new information recovery commission has said. Former lord chief justice for Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan also said that the Government’s controversial legacy proposals have had a “very unfortunate start” and added that some Conservative MPs have continued to focus on how the legislation would benefit military veterans. Sir Declan is the incoming chief commissioner of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which will take over hundreds of unresolved Troubles cases when the legislation becomes law, probably by next month.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill could give immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences to former terrorists who co-operated with the ICRIR. It would also prevent future civil cases and inquests. The Bill is opposed by all major Stormont parties, the Irish Government and victims’ campaign groups. However, Sir Declan said he decided to accept the position as head of the ICRIR partly because of the lack of a reconciliation process for victims and survivors of terrorism. He told the PA news agency: “The first question was how has this issue been addressed in our society so far? “The answer is that it has been avoided. “It was avoided in 1998 (when the Good Friday Agreement was signed), there were attempts in the early 2000s through the HET (Historical Enquiries Team) to deal with it, which foundered. “There was an attempt in 2009 through Eames/Bradley to do something about it, which also foundered. “The Stormont House Agreement looked as though it was going to be a fresh start for everybody in 2014, but the fact that the Stormont House Agreement hasn’t come into force, it seems to me there is a lack of will somewhere for that to happen. “We waited nine years for that. How much longer are we going to have to wait for something to be done?” “That was the first part of the background. We really need to do something about this.” Referring to controversy over the Government’s legacy bill, Sir Declan said: “I agree the legislation had a most unfortunate start. “I think the written ministerial statement by the then secretary of state Brandon Lewis was very focused on what was in this for the veterans, and some Conservative politicians have continued to focus on that as being what the issue is. “I do remember speaking in Westminster remotely, where after that written ministerial statement there were obviously a lot of people who felt this was not an appropriate response. “I remember saying to the group, you can stop this and the way to stop it is for all the parties in Northern Ireland to say we want the Stormont House Agreement. “That is the answer if you really want to stop it. “I didn’t get any support apart from one person at Queen’s University on the call, and people I spoke to afterwards in the political sphere explained to me that although everybody signed up to the Stormont House Agreement they didn’t agree the details and therefore it wasn’t going to happen. “If people won’t sign up to the Stormont House Agreement they are highly unlikely to sign up to anything else which is going to address this problem. “You are always going to be left with some disagreement within Northern Ireland about how one should approach this.” Sir Declan said the proposed legislation was very broad and this would allow him and his team of commissioners to take a public-led approach when dealing with information recovery and reconciliation. He said: “I looked at the legislation. Once you get past the door of immunity and start to look at what is in the legislation, it is extraordinarily open in terms of how you are going to deliver the things like the information recovery and look at the issue of reconciliation. “It is like an open box into which you can put whatever you want to make the machinery work. “That is why you can go out to the public and say how are we going to fill this box to make this work in the best way. “It was that opportunity which for me was a very important aspect in the past.” Sir Declan said he was not disappointed that there had been no public support from political parties in Northern Ireland for the work of the ICRIR. He said: “I didn’t have any expectation that there would be any kind of overt or covert political support for the commission. “This is a very difficult, sensitive political issue, to expect the politicians, without taking the temperature of their communities, to come out and express their support, in light of what has been the position to date, is expecting a great deal. “I think it is up to us to show we can deliver and if that happens, I would hope that we would begin to see the benefits of that in the political process.”
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