The Alliance Party has become the third of the five political parties on the Northern Ireland Executive to state that the proposals set out in draft legislation on dealing with the past within the Stormont House Agreement should not proceed to Westminster at this stage.
Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have expressed that they have major concerns about the legislation going forward. The bill is expected to be tabled at Westminster this week and quite possibly as soon as today, October 12, 2015.
Last week, the ‘Journal’ obtained and published a copy of the legislation which has drawn heavy criticism from relatives of people killed during the Northern conflict.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers has denied that the legislation represents an amnesty.
However, the he fears of victims’ relatives that this was the case, were confirmed when it became clear that perpetrators of killings would be able to confess their crimes to the newly established Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU) and then walk away without fear of prosecution.
Relatives of those killed will also not be told if any disclosure had been made in relation to the deaths of their loved ones. They also fear the HIU will not contain the promised level of investigative independence hoped for.
Getting the legislation right is more important than sticking to parliamentary timetables-Alliance Party
The legislation does allow scope for prosecutions if new evidence comes to light and the manner in which disclosed information will be evaluated makes it unlikely that a a wide range of prosecutions will ever take place. The HIU is set to replace the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and unlike the HET will have full policing powers and access to State documents.
The new director of the HIU will be appointed by First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and they will also have the power to sack the director.
Members of the British Army and police - both former RUC, PSNI and serving members of those organisations, will be eligible to take up posts as ‘independent investigators’,
The establishment of the HIU is set to cost £150 million and its remit is set to last five years.
The Secretary of State will have the ultimate say, however, with the power to shut the entire operation down.
When asked for the Alliance Party stance on the situation, a spokesperson told the ‘Journal’: “Alliance believes dealing with the past is a crucial aspect of building a stable and shared Northern Ireland, and getting the legislation right is more important than sticking to parliamentary timetables.
“We have advised the Government they should be seeking to secure the broadest possible political consensus and support for any new institutions for dealing with the past, thereby creating the conditions for the broadest possible public support for those institutions, and that it would be better to take the necessary time to secure such a consensus, rather than introduce a Bill with only narrow political support.
“In terms of the content, Alliance continues to work with the governments and the political parties to ensure the clauses deliver on the commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement.”
Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have already said they cannot stand over the proposed legislation as it stands.
SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan has expressed was he has described as “his profound concerns about the ‘chicane of flaws’ which have been written into proposed legislation on dealing with the legacy of the past”.
Mr Durkan, a member of the SDLP delegation at the Stormont talks, said: “Prior to the current talks the SDLP registered a number of fundamental concerns about what we feared was the direction of travel away from some of the terms of the Stormont House Agreement.
“We have continually reminded the British government, the Irish government and all the other parties – as we said publicly on the day it was issued – Stormont House falls short of the Haass proposals, which in turn fell short of Eames / Bradley. As we stated then, the requirement for victims and the wider needs of society and future generations is to build up from the Stormont House Agreement to try to make good its inadequacies.
“The draft clauses which we have now seen from the British government detract and divert from the terms of the Stormont House Agreement in too many areas for them to be acceptable even for tabling.
“The SDLP has been unambiguous in its verdict at the talks that the British government should not table the bill.
“Not only have we refused to be bound by the British government’s timeline of having to table the bill in Westminster next week, we have not even accepted the claimed imperative of tabling it this month given our profound concerns about the chicane of flaws which have been written into these clauses.”
And, Sinn Fein MLA for Foyle has described proposed legislation on dealing with the past are “unacceptable and a clear breach of the Stormont House Agreement”.
Raymond McCartney, vice-chair of the Assembly Justice Committee also said the British government need to do more to resolve the difficulties it has created for the political process.
“All the parties at Stormont House agreed on the need to provide justice and truth recovery mechanisms for the families of victims of the conflict.
“The British government’s legislation on dealing with the legacy of the past is in clear breach of the Stormont House Agreement.
“The legislation being proposed by Theresa Villiers and her colleagues in the British government is about hiding the British state’s role as a central player in the conflict and its collusion with unionist death squads.
“That is unacceptable. The British government has created many of the difficulties currently faced by the Executive and they must step up to the plate in working with others in finding resolutions,” he said.