21.Many witnesses referred to the lack of stakeholder engagement before and after the publication of the WMS. Judith Thompson stated:
I would highlight that there has been no further public consultation on the detail of the changes, and no schedule for legislative processes.
When asked when the Commission was first made aware of the new proposals, Judith Thompson answered that she “saw the press release during its embargo period on 18 March. I had no pre-sight or foresight of that announcement.” This view was shared by Sandra Peake, CEO of WAVE Trauma Centre, who described the WMS as a “bolt out of the blue”:
We were waiting for Stormont House. We thought there was an agreement between the British and Irish Governments and the Assembly, and we were waiting for an action on that. We had no warning. All of a sudden, in the middle of Covid, a two-page statement came out … with absolutely no warning, at a time when victims and survivors were most vulnerable.
Speaking to the Committee, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne stated that he was still awaiting further detail on the content and implications of the WMS. He said that the PSNI was “surprised” that it was not more closely involved given its responsibility for legacy investigations, adding:
I think some earlier sense of what was coming, and the departure from the current proposals around the Stormont House agreement, would have at least been helpful to help us think that through.
The Chief Constable confirmed that a policy working group had been set up by the NIO to consider the proposals in late March, although the PSNI declined to take part due to concerns about the need to remain impartial. The Committee does not necessarily concur with that decision and believe that the policy could have been significantly helped by PSNI involvement.
22.The commitment to legislate on legacy issues included in New Decade, New Approach promised that the Government would “now start an intensive process with the Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish Government as appropriate, to maintain a broad-based consensus on these issues”. However, it was clear from parties’ reaction to the WMS that a broad-based consensus had not yet been reached on the proposals and that limited, if any, consultation had taken place before the WMS’s publication. Shortly after the publication of the WMS, the then Irish Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney TD, released a statement calling for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement:
Where the UK Government are proposing significant changes to that framework, these must be discussed and agreed by both Governments and the parties to the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Government confirmed that it had spoken to the Irish Government and party leaders in Northern Ireland immediately before the WMS was published on 18 March. We note that ‘spoken to’ is very different from ‘conferred with’. We understand that engagement is ongoing, and we hope that it is meaningful and open-ended. We welcome the Government’s confirmation that it would seek a legislative consent motion from the Northern Ireland Assembly on the legislative proposals.
23.Some witnesses suggested that the Government’s approach may have damaged trust. Healing Through Remembering, an organisation set up to examine how to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, stated:
any new institution could generate significant good will and confidence at the grassroots if it started out with an inclusive approach that invites engagement from those that have felt excluded or poorly treated by previous processes. The Government proposal rather perpetuates the feelings of exclusion and mistreatment.
24.We are dismayed by the lack of consultation and engagement with representative groups by the NIO on its new proposals both before and after the publication of the WMS in March 2020. The WMS was a unilateral and emphatic announcement of intent rather than part of a meaningful consultation process. This issue demands serious and sustained engagement by the Government. Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland has historically been based on establishing consensus and agreement. Merely telling parties or organisations what Government either has done or is about to do is not consultation. We invite the Government to set out in written and/or oral evidence its engagement with the Irish Government, an invitation of which the Irish Government is also welcome to avail itself, if it so wishes. In order to ensure that its new legacy proposals are fit for purpose and capable of drawing support from all communities, the Government must conduct a transparent and meaningful consultation with victims’ groups, Northern Ireland political parties and, to the extent necessary, the Irish Government before publishing legislation.
42 For example, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (), para 4.4
49 Paragraph 16, Annex A, Agreement
50 Statements were released by the , , and in response to the WMS publication.
51 , 18 March 2020
52 , Northern Ireland Office, 9 July 2020
53 In answer to a written question on 15 October 2020, Minister of State Robin Walker confirmed that the Secretary of State had met with the Irish Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs on 8 October, “ to discuss a range of issues, including legacy”.
54 , Northern Ireland Office, 4 May 2020
55 For example, see Stormont House Agreement Model Bill Team (), para 1; [WAVE Trauma Centre]
56 Healing Through Remembering ()
Published: 26 October 2020