The legacy of the past is one of the big issues which remains to be resolved in the outworking of the peace process. This includes the truth about formal and informal collusion and the wider desire of many victims and families for an effective truth recovery process.
Ten years ago, in 2001, the British and Irish Governments committed, at peace process talks at Weston Park, to adopt the recommendations of an International Judge in relation to a number of specific cases of collusion.
Canadian Judge Peter Cory was asked to look at the killing of Pat Finucane; Robert Hamill; Rosemary Nelson; Billy Wright; Judge Gibson and his wife; and RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan.
Cory worked diligently and in 2003 he handed his reports over to the two governments. The Canadian Judge concluded that there was no basis for an inquiry into the deaths of the Gibsons. He proposed that one should be held into the killing of the two RUC officers.
The Irish government published Cory’s recommendations in December 03 and announced that it would set up an inquiry, but the British stalled until April 04 before publishing his reports to them.
Seven years later of all the six cases investigated by Judge Cory only the Pat Finucane Inquiry has yet to commence. It is the opinion of this blog that the British government is deeply worried by the enormous political implications of the Finucane case which is known to involve substantial institutional collusion between British state forces and the UDA.
This concern was evident in the introduction by the British government in June 2005 of the Inquiries Act 2005. This legislation deliberately limits the scope of the inquiries proposed by Cory who criticised the British move saying it "...would make a meaningful inquiry impossible."
Meanwhile, the Smithwick Tribunal was established by Resolutions passed by Dáil and Seanad on the 23rd and 24th March 2005. It allows for immunity for witnesses.
Its purpose is to inquire “into suggestions that members of An Garda Síochána or other employees of the State colluded in the fatal shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan on the 20th March, 1989.”
In May 2006 I was asked to meet the Smithwick Tribunal. This meeting took place a few weeks later in June.
The Tribunal asked if Sinn Féin could facilitate an engagement with the IRA about the killing of the two RUC men and claims that this action was possible because of collusion took place with members of the Gardaí.
We undertook to do our best. But we were mindful that the situation had changed significantly as a consequence of the IRA’s July 2005 statement in which the IRA leadership had “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” and said that “all IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.”
The IRA restated its goal of achieving a united Ireland and in its statement it acknowledged that it believed that “there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country. It is the responsibility of all Volunteers to show leadership, determination and courage.”
The consequence of this was that the IRA had left the stage and there could be no engagement with it. However, we were advised that former volunteers might be prepared to engage with the Smithwick Tribunal on a voluntary basis.
The Sinn Féin leadership spent some time putting in place a process which would facilitate this. When this was achieved Sinn Féin stepped back and the process moved forward.
This week the Smithwick Tribunal opened for its first substantive public hearings. In her opening remarks Maura Laverty SC, a member of the Tribunal’s legal team, revealed that the Tribunal had met with former IRA volunteers.
She described it as a ‘very significant development’ and as an ‘unprecedented development’ and described how three members of the Tribunal’s legal team had met with three former members of the IRA. She said: “Those former members included former leadership at both national and local (south Armagh) level. One of the three former personnel had first-hand knowledge of the IRA operation of March 20th, 1989, and had a command role in that operation. The former personnel gave a detailed account of the events leading to the deaths of Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan and replied to questions posed by the three members of the Tribunal’s legal team.”
The Sinn Féin leadership helped to facilitate this engagement because we sincerely believe there is a responsibility to assist families bereaved in the conflict if and when we can, though this may not be possible in all cases.
Republicans are very conscious of the hurt and suffering which has been caused through conflict in our country.
Sinn Féin believes that there needs to be an effective process for dealing with all legacy issues. Weston Park only dealt with six cases. But there are many more families who seek truth and closure.
Therefore, the British and Irish governments should invite a reputable and independent international body to establish an Independent International Truth Commission.
Sinn Féin has been consistent on this issue. Our proposition would be independent of any state, combatant groups, political parties, civil society and economic interests.
It should have a remit to inquire into the extent and pattern of past violations as well as their causes and consequences and would be dependent on the full co-operation of all the relevant parties.
Of course, such a process would not be easy. There are vested interests who do not want the truth and who will oppose the creation of a meaningful truth recovery process.
It will also be a difficult and painful process and experience, particularly for bereaved families. It must therefore be conducted in a sensitive and generous way. And there can be no hierarchy of victims. All victims must be treated on the basis of equality.
The closure which victims, victim’s families and survivors deserve, demands that those who contributed to the conflict have to pledge ourselves to tell and to listen to the truth about the past. Over time this will contribute to genuine national reconciliation and an inclusive healing process.
For my part I would actively encourage republicans to co-operate with such a process.
Building a united harmonious society demands that these difficult issues are dealt with in an inclusive way as a necessary part of putting the past behind us. Looking after victims and victims’ families and survivors is a significant and important part of this.