The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  We welcome the work of the Consultative Group on the Past and recognise the significant time, energy and careful thought that all members of the Group put into compiling their report. The Group consulted widely among communities in Northern Ireland and produced a report which attempted to outline a way forward for everyone. This enormously difficult task was bound to provoke an emotional reaction from all areas of society affected by the Troubles. The final report was the product of a broad consultative exercise, conducted in good faith by the members of the Group. (Paragraph 16)

2.   We endorse the Secretary of State's decision to set aside the recognition payment proposed by the Consultative Group in order to facilitate discussion of its wider recommendations. (Paragraph 22)

3.  Whether or not any or all of the 31 recommendations are implemented, the report provides an opportunity for reflection on the extent to which society as a whole in Northern Ireland has progressed towards reconciliation, the degree and nature of remaining tensions in Northern Ireland, and the work that remains to be done. While we believe that the five-month gap between publication of the Consultative Group's report and the Government's launch of public consultation upon it was unnecessarily long, we hope that the public will have put emotional responses to one aspect of the Group's report to one side and engaged fully with the consultation to establish where consensus lies in relation to the remaining 30 recommendations. (Paragraph 23)

4.  A Legacy Commission would add real value only if it were qualified fully to take over the functions of bodies such as the Historical Enquiries Team and Police Ombudsman. It is not clear to us that it would greatly enhance the activities of bodies such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council or Healing Through Remembering, unless it were a replacement for, rather than a complement to, them. There is a danger that Northern Ireland could become overburdened with bodies addressing the Troubles. This would be unhelpful and likely to lead to confusion for the public, with work being replicated unnecessarily, representing an inefficient use of limited resources. We believe that it would be more helpful to give greater support to existing bodies to enable them to fulfil their roles as effectively as possible. (Paragraph 30)

5.  Given the absence of cross-community consensus regarding the nature, aims or work of such a body, we believe that the conditions of cross-community consensus required for the creation of the type of Legacy Commission proposed by the Consultative Group have not yet been achieved. (Paragraph 37)

6.   We note that the Government completed its consultation on the Consultative Group's report in October 2009 and that the Commission for Victims and Survivors intends to undertake similar activities. These periods of consultation and discussion are necessary. Decisions must be taken, however, on the best way to address the past in Northern Ireland, and these decisions cannot be put off indefinitely. We recommend that the Government announces a time frame for any recommendations that it hopes to implement, following this period of consultation, and following detailed discussion with the parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly and, bearing in mind the imminent general election, with the Opposition at Westminster. (Paragraph 39)

7.  The precise time frame required by a Legacy Commission could be determined within the context of the needs of Northern Ireland, only if and when cross-community consensus was found on its role and mandate. We believe it likely that any Commission would require a five-year mandate at the very least but support the idea of a time-limited mandate in order to prevent such a body from running indefinitely and prolonging the effects of the past by so doing. (Paragraph 45)

8.  We suggest that the Commission might be more helpfully chaired by a local figure, as an active chief executive, rather than by a foreign figurehead. Northern Ireland is in a position where it is able to run its own institutions, such as the Assembly, on a cross-party basis, and that position is vital in the rebuilding of a sense of normality. While there may be political advantages in bringing an international figure to such a role, it would, at this point in Northern Ireland's progress towards lasting peace, be a much more positive move if any future Legacy Commission were chaired, or jointly chaired, by appointees from within Northern Ireland who could unite communities, with cross-community agreement and support. (Paragraph 48)

9.  The reality of devolution must be acknowledged: much of the money required for a Legacy Commission would fund activities in the already devolved areas of health and social care, and in the field of policing and justice, which we hope will be fully devolved in the very near future. Devolution should be seen to be progressing, and, therefore, seeking such additional funding from the UK Government looks like a step in the wrong direction. We believe that any significant additional funding should be voted by the Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the UK Government. Decisions over funding levels and, by extension, the exact nature of any Legacy Commission would, therefore, be a matter of policy choice for the Northern Ireland Executive, rather than the UK Government. It is in the long-term interest of everyone involved that such decisions be taken by those who represent the people of Northern Ireland, and that the Executive be accountable for the financial consequences of such decisions. (Paragraph 51)

10.  We reiterate our previous sentiments regarding cross-border co-operation and note that, while we do not recommend that the Legacy Commission go ahead as proposed, there is scope for collaboration between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, both in terms of providing support for those affected by the Troubles on both sides of the border and the ongoing work of the Historical Enquiries Team. However, the exact role to be played by the Irish Government, and the legislative framework for such involvement, remain unclear in the report of the Consultative Group. Greater clarification is required as to the exact role of the Irish Government and any financial contribution it would make if any such Legacy Commission were to be pursued in the future. (Paragraph 54)

11.  We note that in August 2009 the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister published proposals for consultation on the establishment of the Victims and Survivors Service. This is to be welcomed and will improve support to both Victims Groups and individuals affected by the Troubles. We hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will implement this service as soon as is practicable. (Paragraph 63)

12.   We believe that there is a need for greater financial support and services to be made available for those affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland and share the view that this should include those physically and psychologically injured by these events. (Paragraph 64)

13.  We commend for consideration by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister the establishment of a fund to be operated on the basis of criteria which command cross-community support. (Paragraph 65)

14.  The definition of a "victim" provided by the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is currently the accepted legal definition of "victim", and should remain so until such time as an alternative gains cross-party support within the Assembly. However, it is clear that further public debate is needed in order to build a clear consensus on this issue. It will ultimately be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to establish an accepted understanding of who constitutes a "victim". (Paragraph 72)

15.  There is a need to ensure that physical and psychological services and support are available to all who need them. The need for adequate healthcare services is of particular concern. However, we are not persuaded that the Reconciliation Forum as proposed will necessarily add value to existing bodies such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors. The aims of the Consultative Group might be more effectively and efficiently delivered if such bodies empowered to take on a wider strategic role in coordinating and developing existing services for victims and survivors. (Paragraph 81)

16.  Existing healthcare services for those bereaved and injured during the Troubles are under pressure, particularly mental health services. We encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to give these matters serious consideration. We recognise that £100 million is a very large sum, and it might be put to more productive use in finding a scheme to help those injured or bereaved, as proposed in paragraph 65 of this Report. (Paragraph 85)

17.  Storytelling activities and events, which encourage both private and collective remembrance and reflection, have already assisted in promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Any Legacy Commission established in the future may have a role to play in terms of encouraging the development of such initiatives, in liaison with other public bodies engaged in this field. In the meantime, there should be continued support for organisations such as Healing Through Remembering presently undertaking such projects. We emphasise that consensus must be the basis for taking forward initiatives such as the Day of Reflection. Not everyone will feel able to participate in collective remembrance and this should be understood. It is important that leading political, church and other community representatives should be seen to show the way towards reconciliation. (Paragraph 93)

18.  If and when a Legacy Commission were established, serious debate would be required on its taking over the task of reviewing historical cases from the Historical Enquiries Team and the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The logistics involved in transferring these activities would be complex and costly, and questions arise over the real benefits to be gained from doing so. Unless it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that a new situation would be significantly more efficient, effective and economical than is the case under the present arrangements, we recommend that historical investigations continue to be carried out by the Police Ombudsman and the Historical Enquiries Team. (Paragraph 105)

19.  We believe that the proposed mechanisms for truth recovery and thematic investigation do not represent viable courses of action with which families, victims and paramilitaries will engage. In treading carefully, the Consultative Group appears to attempt to reconcile two mutually inconsistent positions. Despite the Group's intentions, the proposals, if enacted as proposed, might well in effect constitute a de facto "amnesty". Yet, at the same time, they might not provide sufficient assurance to those who might engage in truth recovery. (Paragraph 113)

20.   Truth recovery could work effectively only if there were open and honest engagement by those involved in past events. It may be that such engagement would be achieved only if those who participated in such events, from whatever section of the community they may come, were guaranteed some amnesty in return for their openness and honesty. This would be an exceedingly high price to pay, and we are not convinced that either Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom is ready at present to contemplate such a step. We believe that the Consultative Group's proposals in this respect are likely to prove unworkable. The proposed system also raises complex issues in relation to legal process and human rights. We recommend, therefore, that no additional processes of truth recovery or thematic investigation should be undertaken at present by any newly formed Legacy Commission. (Paragraph 114)

21.  We recognise that there may be public demand for an alternative process, outside the traditional court system, that allows information to be disclosed and families to seek a different form of resolution. Public debate will be required to establish what further investigations, if any, should be pursued following completion of the work of the HET. We hope that once all cases that could lead to prosecution have been investigated, a clearer consensus will emerge as to how to approach further investigation in a manner that will benefit society as a whole. Any initiative along these lines, if it is to have any prospect of success, must come from the Northern Ireland Executive and be endorsed by the Assembly. (Paragraph 115)

22.  We recognise the role that public inquiries play in terms of holding the Government and other public bodies to account for their actions in relation to the events of the past. We also acknowledge that such inquiries promise some degree of resolution to families who feel that their cases have not been effectively dealt with through the normal court system. However, there remains a risk that such lengthy investigations are not necessarily conducive to promoting reconciliation and may not come to any new or satisfactory conclusions. (Paragraph 119)

23.  In our 2008 Report on Policing and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, the Committee expressed a view that any public inquiry beyond those currently under way should depend on cross-community support from within the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the continuing demand for a mechanism to pursue investigation cannot be ignored. If demand still exists once the existing public inquiries and reviews of historical cases have been completed, there may be a role for a body such as the proposed Legacy Commission to undertake some form of thematic investigation as an alternative. We would expect the full devolution of policing and justice to have been achieved by the time that any such decisions are taken. We recommend that necessary funding should then come from the Northern Ireland Executive, rather than the UK Government. (Paragraph 120)

24.  Whatever the outcome of the Government's consultation, and whatever emerges from the Consultative Group's report, that report should be seen as a further step in seeking to build a broader and stronger consensus. We believe that reflection on and constructive criticism of the Consultative Group's report should help towards a joint acceptance which can, in time, enable Northern Ireland to put its past behind it. (Paragraph 123)

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Prepared 16 December 2009