Past caring – Amnesty’s call a for new overarching investigation into Northern Ireland’s bloody past
“In Northern Ireland the past is the present”.
So says Peter Heathwood, who was shot and left paralysed in an attack on his home by suspected loyalist gunmen in September 1979. His father, Herbert, died of a heart attack at the scene, believing he had seen his son killed. “I don’t want my grandchildren to have to suffer this again”, Peter says.
In a new report published today, we warn that attempts to deal with the past in Northern Ireland have so far been inadequate and that the current generation risks handing on a potentially lethal legacy of deep division to the next.
Fifteen years ago the Good Friday - or Belfast - Agreement, marked a political solution to end three decades of bloody political conflict in Northern Ireland. Since then, a patchwork of measures has been tried, including isolated investigations conducted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team, the Office of the Police Ombudsman, and various coroners’ inquests; but each has had a narrow remit and has left families with more questions than answers.
During Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ more than 3,600 people were killed and over 40,000 injured. In most cases, no one has ever been held responsible. Amnesty has spent the last two years hearing from victims and families who are desperate to get to the truth of who was responsible for policies such as ‘shoot to kill’ and to gain some closure on a conflict which still casts a shadow over the present. Families spoke to Amnesty about being presented with version after version of the ‘truth’, and never knowing definitively what had happened.
The tensions in modern-day society in Northern Ireland, exemplified by controversy over parades and flags, demonstrate the need to think again about how the past is dealt with. Amnesty wants to see a new, overarching investigative mechanism, one which looks at the situation as a whole and is not limited by the narrow remits of previous investigations.
Our report recommends that some specific cases on which Amnesty has made public campaigning calls, such as the Omagh bombing as well as the killing of Patrick Finucane, the Belfast solicitor shot by members of a loyalist armed group, warrant independent public inquiries. Today, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, announced that she was not prepared to hold any such inquiry into Omagh
Poignantly, the bereaved families and those injured in the Omagh bombing have already been driven to commission their own report in their desperate quest for answers. Nevertheless, it has left them with yet more unanswered questions about responsibility for the attack, and today’s announcement seems a cruel rejection of their plea for justice.
Let sleeping dogs lie, you might say. Draw a line under it. Leave the past behind – it’s for the previous generation and shouldn’t be dredged up now. That seems symptomatic of the UK government’s approach to Northern Ireland’s bloody past. Westminster wishes to force the door shut on the past, but it is families who rightly keep wedging the door open. People like James Miller, whose grandfather David Miller was among nine people killed in a suspected IRA bomb attack in Claudy in 1972. He said:
"It’s said they are waiting for us to die out. But the next generation will still keep asking questions about what happened.
"Look at me: it was my grandfather who was killed, and I am still going to keep asking for the truth."
There is a cruel irony in the fact that Northern Ireland is held up as a success story when many victims' families actually consider their treatment a profound failure.
Truth belongs to the victors, it is said. But in this instance, until the truth is established, no one wins.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.