After waiting five years for the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) to be implemented, victims who lost loved ones in the Troubles now face having their hopes of receiving justice dashed.

The United Kingdom (UK) is abandoning key provisions of the SHA to protect veterans from allegations of misconduct. That abandonment undercuts efforts to foster reconciliation and to build a shared future in Northern Ireland.

Since December 2014, successive administrations of the conservative government in Great Britain have expressed a commitment to implementing the terms of the SHA. Dealing with the past was an important part of the SHA and a vital component of a plan to achieve long-term peace and stability.

The SHA called for the establishment of new institutions to promote reconciliation, uphold the rule of law, promote human rights, acknowledge and address the suffering of victims and survivors, facilitate the pursuit of justice and address the past in a balanced, proportionate, fair and equitable way. One of the institutions the SHA proposed was a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).  

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The HIU was “an independent body [that would] take forward and conduct investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths.” The HIU was at the heart of providing truth and justice to victims’ families. It was directed to treat all cases equally and in a human rights compliant manner.

Another institution the SHA proposed was an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR), through which “victims and survivors [could] seek and privately receive information about the deaths of their next of kin.” Nothing has been done to establish the HIU or ICIR.   

The UK government recently announced a new “way forward” to deal with the legacy of the past. While campaigning for office last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged an end to “vexatious” prosecutions of Army veterans. Earlier this year, he stressed a need for a balance “between giving people who are in search of the truth the confidence that they need, but also giving people who served our country in the armed services the confidence and certainty that they need.” In light of the government’s way forward, which delivers on the Prime Minister’s pledge, the statement is very misleading. It would have been more accurate to tell the public my government is doing a U-turn and dramatically changing policy.  

The government’s new approach calls for the creation of a new body to conduct “swift,” final “examinations” of all unresolved Troubles-deaths. There are nearly 2,000 unsolved murders. This new body will also provide families of the decedents’ reports “concerning the death of their loved ones.” This body will replace the HIU and ICIR proposed in the SHA and handle both functions.   

Now, fresh investigations will take place only if there is “new compelling evidence and a realistic prospect of a prosecution.” If not, the re-investigation will stop, and victims’ families will be given the existing “information on how their loved ones lost their lives.” 

This unilateral change in policy marks a substantive departure from the SHA. The stated intent of the policy is to end repeated investigations of misconduct allegations and protect veterans. (The Soldier F Bloody Sunday case would meet this new test.) This goal creates an imbalance and unfairness by distorting the process.

Social Democratic Labor Party leader Colum Eastwood is correct to point out that the new policy “is not about dealing with the past ethically, it is not about delivering truth, justice, and reconciliation. This is about shutting down justice and shielding former soldiers from fulsome investigation indefinitely.” The government claims the policy will “help ease the difficult process of reconciliation.” But it is hard to see how it can.

It is important to remember that part of the reason why investigations of soldiers and members of security forces are ongoing is that prior investigations were either swept under the rug or botched. Decrying re-investigation of these cases rings hollow. Years of cover-ups are supposed to be over.

This new way forward has other problems. First, who will oversee the new body to ensure it is accountable? Under the SHA, the HIU’s work was to be overseen by the Northern Ireland Policing Board.  Second, there is no mention of adhering to human rights standards while investigating. Although the new approach calls for swift investigations, the question of whether they will be transparent, independent and effective is left open. If there is a lack of compliance with human rights standards and oversight, the information provided to victims’ families may not tell the true story.

Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney responded to the new policy by expressing the Irish government’s opposition to “any special measure or treatment regarding investigation of state or non-state actors in Northern Ireland.” In other words, no one, not even veterans, should be above the law. He said there should be “effective investigations into all Troubles-related deaths, regardless of the perpetrator.” That means, “[t]he rule of law and protections afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights must apply to everyone and must be upheld.” The new policy contravenes that.

Finally, while time and resources are always critical considerations in investigations, they cannot trump doing what is necessary to handle the complex issue of dealing with the past in a way that not only addresses it but builds a shared future for Northern Ireland’s two communities. Having a full record and a shared understanding of what happened is fundamental to achieving this.   

Anyone who loses a loved one suffers immense heartache and lingering pain. To have a loved one murdered only magnifies that grief.  People yearn for answers about what happened? Why did it happen? Who did it? And if anyone will be held responsible?

Troubles-victims have waited decades to learn the truth about how their loved ones died, receive acknowledgment for their loss, and see wrongdoers held accountable. These things are necessary in order for victims to heal. The HIU was structured to provide this. The new policy is not. 

Truth, acknowledgment, and accountability also serve as the foundation for a reconciled society by helping build trust and repair relationships. As it stands, the new policy utterly fails to deliver on these key elements. To force it down the throats of victims will, unfortunately, harm reconciliation efforts, not foster them.

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Stormont Building, where the Northern Irish Assembly meets. wiki / Public Doman.