Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Session 2004-05

8 April 2005




Ways of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past:

Interim report - victims and survivors

COMMITTEE INTERIM REPORT POINTS TO CENTRAL ROLE

OF VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS IN DEALING WITH NORTHERN IRELANDS’ PAST

The Northern Ireland affairs Committee published its report, Ways of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past: Interim report - victims and survivors, today. The report urges the Government to increase the support it provides to victims and survivors; highlights the ways in which victims and survivors are at the centre of efforts to build a better future in Northern Ireland; and, while fully supportive of a consultation on the terms of a formal truth recovery process, concludes that the time for this is not yet right.

The Rt. Hon. Michael Mates MP, Chairman of the Committee said:

“We came to the task of exploring how the terrible scars of Northern Ireland’s difficult past could be healed for the sake of ensuring a better future with a great sense of humility, and with considerable optimism. However, the past few months have been a difficult period in Northern Ireland. When we announced this inquiry, in November 2004, the future for the peace process appeared to be growing brighter. Sadly, for the time being at least, that early promise has faded. As a result, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced in March that a broad consultation on a formal truth process would not be undertaken at this time.  

“An additional complication has been the immanence of a general election which has meant that we have not had the opportunity to complete our programme of work as originally envisaged. In the short space of time available to us, therefore, we have chosen to concentrate on victims and survivors as those who have made the greatest sacrifice during the decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. We hope that our successor committee in the next Parliament will consider how it might continue the work we have begun.

“While the background to our inquiry has shifted rapidly over the past few months, this has not devalued our efforts. On the contrary, it has provided an opportunity for us to concentrate on the role of Northern Ireland’s victims and survivors, and learn about their extraordinary contribution to the construction of an increasingly tolerant and peaceful society in Northern Ireland for all. 

“Those who have suffered most terribly from the conflict of the past decades, the victims and survivors, and the groups dedicated to their support, are also those who are busy on the task of building tolerance and inclusiveness into the social fabric of Northern Ireland. We were heartened to learn about the large number of bodies working at all levels in Northern Ireland, and on a genuinely cross-community basis, to heal the inter-communal divisions in Northern Ireland. The work undertaken by these groups constitutes, in a real way, the main current effort to ‘deal’ with Northern Ireland’s tragic past.

“In evidence to this inquiry, victims made the plea that the mistakes which have cast a dreadful pall over the lives of thousands in Northern Ireland must not be repeated in future.  We wholeheartedly endorse this message, and we consider that the clarity and passion with which the victims and survivors of Northern Ireland’s tragic past state it makes them the primary ambassadors of that past to its future. We must all listen to their message with the utmost attention.

“While the revelation we had of victims’ and survivors’ work was immensely heartening, we received evidence of the obstacles remaining to any truth recovery process. For example, the terms ‘victims’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘truth’ mean different things to different people and groups. Deep concerns about continuing paramilitary violence and intimidation were expressed to us. Where agreement has yet to be reached on such fundamental issues, and where security concerns remain a part of everyday life for many people, the necessary broad consensus on the way forward for a truth process is likely to remain elusive.  Indeed, we were given evidence that sections of the population viewed a truth process with considerable misgivings, and would be unlikely to co-operate at present. 

“This does not mean, however, that strong and sustained efforts must not be made by everyone involved to seek a consensus on how such a truth recovery process could benefit inter-communal healing. We were impressed by those who argued that society needs a positive ‘shared’ version of history in order to operate normally.  We were heartened also that the Secretary of State was personally supportive of such a process, was willing to acknowledge that the role of the UK Government is not perceived as neutral by a large part of Northern Ireland’s population, and to consider a significant independent element in any truth recovery process. 

“A formal truth process is only one means of ensuring that the sacrifice of victims and survivors informs the creation of a more peaceful future society. We heard about the work of the ‘Healing Through Remembering’ initiative which has summarised the views of many people in Northern Ireland about a wide range of very important ways in which this might be achieved.

Highlighting a number of observations made by the committee in its interim report which he believed could enhance the role of victims and survivors in society, and the prospects of inter-community harmony, Mr Mates said:

“The Government has spent almost £28 million from 1998 to 2004 funding victims’ groups. Over much of that period, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ inquiry has been underway, and the Government’s estimate is that it will cost £155 million. The committee was concerned that, while the amounts devoted to victims’ support are not negligible, the Government must ensure that the work of building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland, in which victims and survivors groups are playing a key role, attracts a level of funding consistent with its great importance. It is our view that there is room for the Government to increase the financial support it gives to victims’ groups.

“In addition to the level of funding, continuity of funding is of key importance to the victims’ groups. We heard from one group that funding uncertainties had meant that community workers’ posts were at serious risk.  The Government needs to ensure that the horizon of secured funding for victims and survivors’ work is extended so that the groups can concentrate on their main tasks of supporting the victims and survivors.

“Those compensated for injuries sustained very early in the present conflict had settlements which were significantly lower than those whose injuries occurred later.  We urge the Government to look at this problem and to consider additional payments to those treated less generously.

“The committee was interested in the Government’s recently announced of a consultation on a Victims’ and Survivors’ Commissioner. If this initiative is to succeed, there needs to be a consensus amongst victims that such a post had a role to play in focussing and strengthening policy, funding and action for victims; the Commissioner’s area of responsibility requires to be distinguished clearly from that of the Northern Ireland Office Minister currently responsible for victims’ matters; and the post-holder must be given appropriate powers to streamline and develop services for victims.  Victims must be involved in the process of selection of any Commissioner, if the Government’s expectation that he or she will speak for victims is to be realised fully.  

“The committee was concerned that, despite the efforts of the UK and Republic of Ireland Governments, a significant number of those who had ‘disappeared’ as a result of the conflict, remained unaccounted for. Until these cases are resolved, the remains found, and a measure of closure obtained for the families, then it will be extremely difficult for Northern Ireland to move forward fully.          

Mr Mates concluded:

“The subject of Northern Ireland’s ‘past’ is one of great difficulty, and is not amenable to any simple or straightforward ‘solution’. The political landscape has darkened recently with progress on restoring the devolved institutions stalled.   Nevertheless, the inspiring and optimistic evidence we have received from victims and survivors, and many others, on how ways might be found to forge a better future for Northern Ireland through grappling honestly with the legacy of its anguished past, calls for wide circulation.  It is in this spirit that we are publishing the evidence we have gathered with our interim report.

“We hope that our inquiry, by reflecting the wide range of imaginative and effective work undertaken by victims and victims groups which touches the lives of thousands of people, will inspire those charged with political leadership in Northern Ireland to ensure that the conditions for further progress towards permanent peace, and growing inter-community understanding and respect, are re-established swiftly.”