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Northern Ireland: Amnesty slams failure to deal with the past

During ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, more than 3,600 people were killed and more than 40,000 injured. In most cases, no one has ever been held responsible. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland are being “disgracefully let down” by a flawed and fragmented approach to dealing with the past, Amnesty International said today (Thursday 12 September) as it published a new report.

Northern Ireland: Time to Deal with the Past blames the failure to deliver truth and justice on a lack of political will from both the UK government and Northern Ireland’s political parties.

Fifteen years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and one week ahead of the start of major new talks, the 78-page report finds that victims and their families have been failed by successive attempts to investigate abuses.
A failure to deliver a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past has contributed to the societal division that is still rife in Northern Ireland, Amnesty found.
The report, launched today in Belfast, is published ahead of the start of all-party talks chaired by the former US envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, which are aimed at dealing with the past, and addressing other contentious issues such as parading and flags.
Amnesty International Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen said:
“Victims and relatives have been disgracefully let down by inadequate attempts to get to the truth about what happened in Northern Ireland.
“There’s 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 failure.
“Over the last decade a patchwork of measures, including isolated investigations, have failed to establish the full truth about the violations and abuses of the past and left many victims waiting for justice.
“The UK government and all political parties in Northern Ireland need to grasp the nettle now and agree a new approach which is capable of dealing fully with the past.”
The report finds that although numerous disparate and isolated mechanisms exist to look at separate events, the inherent limitations and narrow mandates of each process has meant that they cannot – even collectively – provide the full truth about human rights violations and abuses committed by all sides during the three decades of political violence.
During ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, more than 3,600 people were killed and more than 40,000 injured. In most cases, no one has ever been held responsible.
Amnesty’s report shows that families have been failed by processes conducted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team, the Office of the Police Ombudsman and various coroners’ inquests; each of which had a narrow remit and often left families with more questions than answers.
James Miller, whose grandfather David Miller was among nine people killed in a suspected IRA bomb attack in Claudy in 1972, 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.”
Peter Heathwood was shot and left paralysed in an attack on his home by suspected loyalist gunmen in September 1979. His father, Herbert Heathwood, died of a heart attack at the scene. Peter said:
“People say let’s forget about the past and move on, it was 30 years ago. That’s a load of bunkum. In Northern Ireland the past is the present. If we don’t deal with the past, I don’t want my grandChildren's rights to have to suffer this again. As injured people, we are living scars in society and we need to have it recognised that we have suffered.”
Amnesty is calling for a comprehensive mechanism to be set up to review the conflict as a whole, establish the truth about outstanding human rights violations and determine responsibility.
Any such mechanism must also examine abuses suffered by those seriously injured, and victims of torture and other ill-treatment, which have too often been excluded from existing processes, the organisation said.
Such a mechanism would be an important step towards ending impunity for human rights violations and abuses in Northern Ireland and could contribute towards ending societal division.

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