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Opening statement by the Tánaiste Seanad statements on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

Opening statement by the Tánaiste

 

Seanad statements on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

27 March 2019

 

- Check against delivery -

 

Thank you, a Chathaoirleach,

I welcome this opportunity for discussion with the House on the critical issue of dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland.

 

The key principles of the Government’s approach to legacy are based on the commitments enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement:

 

- We must address the legacy of the past, and we must remember what happened;

 

- We have a duty to the families of those who lost their lives, and to those who were injured, to provide whatever justice, truth and healing is possible;

 

- Human rights and the rule of law must be upheld for everyone; and

 

- We must learn the lessons of the past as we seek full reconciliation and a better future.

 

A Chathaoirleach,

 

In the twenty-one years since solemn commitments were made to victims and survivors in the Good Friday Agreement, two things have become clear:

 

Firstly, that translating those principles and promises into a system that can practically deliver what victims and survivors are entitled to expect is immensely complex, and politically fraught, in Northern Ireland;

 

Secondly, that failing to get an adequate system in place, and instead leaving the current unsuitable processes in place - in policing, in the courts, and in politics - is simply not sustainable.

 

Every day that passes without a functioning legacy framework is a day without a prospect of closure for the hundreds of victims’ families who are still waiting for an effective investigation; it is a day without adequate supports for those seriously injured or traumatised; and it is a day when policing, public discourse and politics in Northern Ireland remains burdened with the wrongs and the wounds of the past.

 

I want to acknowledge and welcome the family of Councillor Patsy Kelly, who are present today, who are one such family who continue to seek the full truth of Councillor Kelly’s brutal abduction and murder in 1974.

 

I know that the Kelly family met with my officials earlier today and I have directed that my Department offer any assistance possible.

 

 

The Government is acutely conscious also of the many people in the South who lost loved ones, or were injured in the events of the Troubles.

 

The Government continues to actively pursue with the British Government the implementation of the all-party Dáil Motions which call for an independent, international judicial figure to review all original documents held by the British Government in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and other attacks in the South.

 

The Taoiseach and I have valued the opportunity of meeting with representatives of Justice for the Forgotten. The Government will continue to work closely with them as we seek that review for the entire record of what happened in the appalling attacks of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. 33 people were killed that day- the largest loss of life on a single day of the Troubles - and hundreds more were seriously injured. There is a need for justice, truth and for closure for victims’ families and for survivors. We will continue to proactively seek progress with the British Government, in accordance with the successive Dáil Motions.

 

We must also remember that there are many victims of the Troubles in Britain who also have the right to acknowledgment, and to whatever justice, truth and healing is possible in their case. I am conscious, for instance, of the 21 families in Birmingham who are at present going through the inquest proceedings into the pub bombings in 1974.

 

While the impact of the Troubles is most profound in Northern Ireland, the bereavement and the pain for each family is no less, wherever you live. And that is at the core of the Government’s approach to dealing with the past.

 

A Chathaoirleach,

 

We have now had more than 10 years of virtually continuous efforts to agree and implement a legacy framework in Northern Ireland, from the Eames Bradley process onwards.

 

In December 2014, after 11 weeks of intensive political talks, the Stormont House Agreement was finally reached. It provides for a comprehensive, inclusive approach to deal with our troubled past.

 

The Stormont House legacy framework includes:

- an Historical Investigations Unit to conduct Article 2-compliant investigations into all outstanding Troubles-related deaths;

 

- an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval that will operate on a cross-border basis and enable families to seek, and privately receive, information about the Troubles-related deaths of their next of kin. This Commission will be fully accessible to people in Northern Ireland, in Great Britain and in this jurisdiction, as confirmed in the treaty signed by the two Governments on the ICIR in 2015.

 

- there will be an Oral History Archive, for people throughout the UK and Ireland to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles;

 

- and there will also be an Implementation and Reconciliation Group to oversee the legacy process, draw lessons, and contribute to reconciliation, a better understanding of the past and reducing sectarianism.

 

The two Governments, and the political parties in Northern Ireland, have spent the years since the Stormont House Agreement developing the legacy framework in full. Detailed draft implementing legislation is almost at the point where it can be considered by the legislatures in each jurisdiction.

 

The British Government held a public consultation on the draft UK legislation last summer. There were many thousands of responses - including from many victims and survivors in this jurisdiction. These are now in the final stages of review, and a response from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will follow.

 

A Chathaoirleach,

 

After many years, we are within touching distance of finally putting a functioning system in place for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, with important elements also accessible for victims and survivors across both jurisdictions.

 

Nobody says that this system will be perfect and that it can satisfy everyone. But it will be vastly better than a status quo that is manifestly not meeting the needs of victims and survivors and is not fit for purpose.

 

We must get the Stormont House framework in place, and soon.

 

Both Governments, as well as political parties, will have to give leadership on this.

 

We must keep the needs of victims and survivors to the fore, and take the necessary steps to get the Stormont House framework established in law in both jurisdiction as soon as possible.

The Government will not be found wanting.

 

The drafting of legislative proposals in this jurisdiction to support and implement the Stormont House framework is advancing, led by my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality.

 

The Government has already published a general scheme of a Bill to provide for enhanced cooperation with legacy inquests in Northern Ireland, and a draft Bill is currently being finalised. This legislation will be of immediate relevance for the ongoing inquest into the Kingsmill massacre at the Belfast Coroners’ Court, and any other legacy inquests in cases with a cross-border dimension.

 

Draft legislation is also being advanced to provide for the establishment of the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval.

 

I will also continue to engage with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the political parties, to support a move ahead to a legislative phase as soon as possible, taking account of issues raised in the recent consultation, while remaining fully consistent with the Stormont House Agreement framework.

 

We cannot have more long processes.

 

Victims and survivors have been waiting for far too long already.

 

In this respect it is very welcome that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland was able to announce, last month, that the necessary resources will be in place so that the outstanding legacy inquests in Northern Ireland, relating to 93 deaths, can be heard, consistent with the proposals of the Lord Chief Justice in Northern Ireland in 2016, and following on from the ruling of the High Court in Northern Ireland in the Hughes case.

 

There are a number of other cases and court rulings in Northern Ireland which have highlighted the failings of the current systems, in particular the unsustainable burden that is placed on the PSNI to investigate the past when it should be focussed on policing for today.

 

This was underlined once again by the concerning announcement last month that the PSNI discovered significant new material for legacy investigations being conducted by the Police Ombudsman, with up to thirty cases affected, and with families now waiting even longer for the conclusion of the Ombudsman’s reports.

 

My thoughts are with those families, and the many others who are being forced to grapple with the current unsuitable system.

 

They should not have to go through the courts to vindicate their rights, or have to wait for the conclusion of investigations which are not adequately resourced under the current system.

 

We must press forward so that court rulings and campaigns are no longer needed.

 

In this context I want to also acknowledge the family of Pat Finucane, who have had to campaign unceasingly over the last 30 years to seek to establish the full facts behind his brutal murder.

 

The Taoiseach and I have been glad to meet with the Finucane family in recent months. The Government’s position is that a public inquiry is required in the case of Pat Finucane, in accordance with the commitments of the two Governments at Weston Park in 2001.

 

This position has been significantly reinforced by the judgment of the UK Supreme Court last month, which made a Declaration in favour of Geraldine Finucane that there has still not been an Article 2 compliant investigation into her husband’s murder.

 

The Government will keep engaging with the British Government until there is a satisfactory outcome in the Finucane case, and we remain in ongoing contact with the Finucane family, who continue to campaign, like so many other families, with courage, dignity and resilience, to seek truth and justice.

 

A Chathaoirleach,

 

The Stormont House Agreement provisions on dealing with the past commence with the affirmation of a set of principles which include -  upholding the rule of law; compliance with human rights; and, acknowledging and addressing the suffering of victims and survivors.

 

That means that there can be no hierarchy of victims in the process. Regardless of the circumstances, there is a requirement to investigate a death.

 

We know that the majority of those who lost their lives in the Troubles were killed by paramilitary groups. But this process cannot be about numbers.

 

Every case, regardless of the circumstances, is a life cut short, and a bereaved family and community left behind. It is not for Governments to say that the suffering of one family is of greater or lesser worth than that of another.

 

The principles of the Stormont House Agreement also mean that there can be no amnesties. It is important to be very clear about that at the present time.

 

All deaths must be properly investigated and prosecuted in compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, regardless of the perpetrator.

 

In this regard, the decision announced by the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland that a former soldier will be prosecuted for the murder of James Wray and William McKinney, and for the attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O’Donnell, on Bloody Sunday in 1972 was a significant moment.

 

I would emphasise that this announcement is part of the operation of due legal process. It is important that nothing is said, or done, by anyone that could be seen to prejudice that. process

 

As we know, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently made what she later acknowledged herself were some very wrong, insensitive and hurtful remarks in Westminster. These were a cause of deep concern, and did a grave disservice to victims’ families who lost loved ones at the hands of state forces, and who continue to seek justice and truth, decades after their tragic loss.

 

This includes the families of the 14 innocent people who were killed in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972, and the Ballymurphy families in 1971, and many others. The Government will continue to support their honourable and dignified campaigns for truth and justice.

 

It is important that the Secretary of State has since confirmed again that, where there is any evidence of wrongdoing, this should be pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be, and that this is, and will remain, the basis of the British Government's approach to dealing with legacy issues.

 

The Irish Government has been clear that we would not support any proposal to introduce such amnesties, for state or non-state actors. I reiterated that to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland again at our last meeting, in London two weeks ago.

 

The Government will also continue to engage with the British Government and with the political parties to get the Stormont House Agreement legacy institutions in place. This has to be an imperative for both Governments, so that victims and survivors can access whatever truth and justice is possible in their case, and to support the achievement of a reconciled society in Northern Ireland.

 

Thank you, A Chathaoirleach, and I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on these most important issues for this island, North and South.

 

 ENDS

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