The writer is the Irish Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defense
Tomorrow is the longest day of the year. The solstice is the day of reflection in Northern Ireland, a time each year when we are asked to stop and reflect on the difficult legacy of 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, for individuals, families and society in general. This is a time to ask how much has changed in 25 years of peace, but also how much more is needed if true reconciliation is to be achieved.
Tomorrow, the UK Government’s The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Inheritance and Reconciliation) Bill also returns for consideration in the House of Lords. I am deeply concerned that the enactment of this Bill, opposed by all political parties in Northern Ireland, and by victims and survivors of the Troubles in all communities, will set back the essential work of reconciliation.
As long as we have peace, Northern Ireland is not reconciled. This has an impact on today’s politics. Competing narratives about the past can crowd out constructive work on everyday issues that change lives for the better.
Families bereaved during the Troubles continue to feel the pain of loss and express their desire for truth, accountability and justice. Existing mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the past, while imperfect, produce important outcomes for these families, such as vindicating the innocence of a murdered loved one.
In its Legacy Bill, the UK government intends to permanently close access to those mechanisms – inquiries, police ombudsman inquiries, civil cases and police inquiries – which work for families and, above all, demonstrate a justification of state obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to effectively investigate the killings.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, as well as the Westminster Joint Committee on Human Rights, have expressed serious doubts about the conformity of the legislation with the international human rights standards. If passed, the bill will face a major legal challenge, adding to the distress of families.
But a better way exists. In the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, the Northern Ireland parties, together with the UK and Irish governments, agreed on mechanisms to better help these families and to achieve justice. The path traced by this agreement was again endorsed by both governments, in the Fresh Start 2015 and New Decade, New Approach 2020 agreements.
Collectively, we agreed that the new processes should be victim-centred. And together we agreed on an architecture designed to promote reconciliation, creating a context in which the UK and Irish governments would consider statements of recognition and, above all, expect others to do the same. I fear that the unilateral approach currently being followed by the UK government is deeply damaging.
In the Stormont House agreement, mechanisms for cross-border cooperation have been incorporated. Given that the Legacy Bill is designed without taking this cross-border dimension into account, there may be serious obstacles to the effective investigation of murders in Ireland by those who lived north of the border, and vice versa.
It’s useless. Worse, it is simply cruel, leaving questions and suspicions hovering and preventing a lasting reconciliation.
I have a positive and constructive relationship with Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Secretary for Northern Ireland. I asked him to put the Legacy Bill on hold and allow time for deeper dialogue with those who will be most affected. When better to take a break than tomorrow, the day of reflection?