The SDLP who are currently taking part in negotiations over the political impasse at the Northern Ireland Assembly have laid out their firm opposition to proposed legislation on dealing with the legacy of the ‘Troubles’.
Earlier this 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.
The legislation is expected to be presented to Westminster next week.
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.
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.
And cross-border evidence from the Gardai in relation to ‘Troubles’ related murders will not be admissable in Northern Ireland as the legislation contends it may be detrimental to international relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Theresa Villiers also recently stated that all five parties on the Stormont Executive had signed up to this as part of last December’s Stormont House Agreement. However bothe SDLP and Sinn Fein have refuted that this was the case.
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.”
Mr Durkan also recently challenged the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in the House of Commons on the lack of consultation on the drafting of the bill and criticised the rationale given by the Department of Justice – who were doing some of the drafting for the NIO – for refusing to engage in the normal consultation framework.
Speaking during Northern Ireland Questions on 15 September, he said: “Questions about the past are particularly important. The Secretary of State should be aware that many victims and victims groups are expressing suspicion and concern about the burden of the proposals relating to the past and the fact that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland is declining to have open consultation and hiding behind the fact that negotiations are taking place among party leaders.
“Will the Secretary of State assure the House that, if she introduces the proposed legislation, she will not hide behind or rest on the fact that there was no proper consultation, she will meet the victim groups to hear their concerns and suspicions, and she will avoid the sort of misadventure a previous government got into in 2005 with the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill? Many of the victims groups view the schemes and language attached to the arrangements on the past as on a par with that misadventure.”
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers replied: “On the proposed legislation, there was a discussion about having a consultation in Northern Ireland, but there was not enough consensus to enable that to happen. We will do everything we can to engage with a range of groups and with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in advance of publishing our Bill, which we propose to do shortly.”