The past continues to permeate and impact on the current political process, while casting a shadow over our future. Victims of the conflict have a right to the truth about the past. Providing mechanisms for achieving that right was the focus of much of the discussion over the recent ‘Fresh Start’ negotiations.
Broad agreement has been reached on the architecture of the legacy mechanisms, which could deliver independent investigations and information recovery for the families of all victims of the conflict. But, having previously agreed to ‘full disclosure’ the British Government did a U-turn and is now insisting on a blanket veto on the release of that information, under the pretext of ‘National Security’.
That veto is not acceptable to some groups representing victims and their families. It is not acceptable to Sinn Féin. This issue must be resolved!
During the recent negotiations, the British government articulated their alleged ‘National Security’ concerns. These related to the potential identification of agents, and the revelation of techniques and methodologies utilised by their security services.
We discussed these concerns in depth, along with legal advisors and campaign groups. This allowed Sinn Féin to designate a number of reasonable options to guide and direct any decision around the onward flow of information to families. And to do so in a way which did not endanger lives. They also address the clear imbalance between the blanket ‘National Security’ veto and the rights of families to the release of relevant information.
In doing this, we have stretched ourselves and offered a major compromise.
The first option, offered in a bid to break the deadlock, was for the Director of the Historical Investigation Unit (HIU), a person of international standing, to have full discretion, in relation to onward disclosure of information to families, free of any veto by the British government. This would be similar to the powers the Police Ombudsman has in this respect.
The second option, was the creation of an independent and international appeal panel, incorporating three judges, one each appointed by the British and Irish governments respectively, and a third international judicial figure appointed jointly by both governments. This panel would adjudicate on appeal applications and determine whether to uphold or quash any veto on information made by the British Secretary of State.
The British government rejected both options. They are firmly set against the prospect of any international dimension to the appeal mechanism, despite the deployment of similar mechanisms throughout the peace process to unlock blockages on key issues like putting weapons beyond use, the monitoring of ceasefires, devising key principles and the chairing of key negotiations.
Instead the British government offered up a right to challenge any veto in the High Court. They have billed this as a ‘significant compromise’. This is a bogus gesture.
This option already exists! Indeed Theresa Villiers herself has exercised this right, by way of a judicial review, when she sought an injunction to prevent the release of documents available in the Public Records Office by DCAL Minister Carál Ní Chuilin to the families of victims of the conflict. This in itself is clearly a telling indication of the British attitude to disclosure.
Moreover, it is ineffective and secretive – closed hearings in the High Court – leading only to significant delay in the publication of reports to families if such a challenge, and potential appeal to that challenge, is taken. The longer-term consequences are likely to be a clogging up of the criminal justice system, which is already being stretched by litigation around legacy issues.
Theresa Villiers’ ‘significant compromise’ is not a credible attempt to address the key issue of onward disclosure of information for families.
In the Stormont House Agreement the British government committed to full disclosure. Their subsequent retreat from this commitment is a telling indication of how much the British state has to fear from the truth about its involvement in the conflict.
British soldiers gunned down Irish civilians in rampages in Ballymurphy, Derry, Springhill, New Lodge and the Shankill. The British state engaged in the systematic murder of people it claimed were its own citizens, including Pat Finucane, Sinn Féin elected representatives and activists and many, many others.
This is the appalling vista that the British government is determined to conceal.