Lord Dub’s remarks on the talks process in the north

Lord Alf Dubs


    Lord Dubs recently called a debate in the House of Lords on the motion:
    “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take, together with the government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland political parties, in reaching and implementing an agreement on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, building on the draft conclusions of the Haass talks.”

Below is his contribution to this debate. Lord Dubs will be on the panel ‘Why we need to build a pro-agreement axis’ on Tuesday 25 November, 7:30pm, Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, House of Commons, London SW1A OAA. Westminster Tube, public entrance to Portcullis House, Victoria Embankment.

My Lords, earlier this week, I attended a plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and we spent last Monday visiting the World War I battlefields in Flanders, especially the graves of so many soldiers who died, including thousands of Irishmen who had volunteered to serve in the British Army. It was a very moving day, especially the ceremony at the Menin Gate at 8 pm that evening.
One of the places that we visited was the Island of Ireland Peace Park and Tower. At that place is a peace pledge from which I wish to quote briefly. It states:

    “As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches”.

That is just an extract from the pledge.
I welcome this opportunity to draw attention to the Haass proposals, which cover parades, flags and dealing with the past. It is really too wide an area for this short debate, so I thought it better to concentrate on just one of these issues; namely, dealing with the past. I should pay tribute to the Eames/Bradley report and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for the part that they played in preparing the way for the Haass proposals. Indeed, I am sorry that the Eames/
Bradley report did not get more attention at the time; it certainly deserved to. It is essential that the people of Northern Ireland should be helped to come to terms with the past, which still weighs heavily on them.
Much progress has of course been made in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements, but the peace is still not solidly based and it is important to make progress on the outstanding issues. Indeed, I go so far as to say that the Good Friday agreement at this time looks vulnerable and fragile. Even at Stormont, the parties could not agree on appointing a new Speaker, having previously said that they would do so. It is a difficult situation and it is against this background that the Belfast talks started last Thursday. Does the Minister have any news about those talks? Will they consider the past and will there be some opportunity to learn more about what is happening there? It is clear that hopes rest heavily on those talks.
As I said, the Good Friday agreement led to the institutions and they have worked pretty well, but I believe that they are now distinctly fragile. Will the Minister confirm what would be the consequence of a collapse in the institutions? Does she feel that there are still people in Northern Ireland, some with considerable influence, who act as if they would not mind if the Executive collapsed? Does she agree that plan B—if one can call it that—would be joint rule by the British and Irish Governments with the strong likelihood of further elections? That would be a dire outcome, so it is even more essential that we do all we can to protect the Good Friday agreement and what it meant for the people of Northern Ireland.
I appreciate that there are other problems in giving effect to the Haass proposals—the Minister will no doubt mention that of the welfare cuts, which I put down as one of the issues that will have to be resolved—yet on the positive side, a few years ago, we had the Saville report on the events on Bloody Sunday. That at the time represented an important step forward—I think that it still is an important step forward— particularly as the Prime Minister endorsed it so warmly. However, that is only one aspect of the past and there are many unresolved issues, Haass represents the chance of moving forward. Have the Government yet endorsed the Haass recommendations? I do not think that they have. I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to endorse them as a good way forward to encourage the Northern Ireland parties to act on them.
Let us look briefly at some of the proposals. Of course, essential should be support for victims and survivors, and there should be a strengthening of the Victims and Survivors Service that was established in 2012. There has been a suggestion that the commissioner should be encouraged to establish a mental trauma service. So many people in Northern Ireland have been severely damaged as a consequence of the Troubles. Anything that would help them as regards their mental well-being could only be a good thing.
A key proposal in the Haass report is to establish a historical investigations unit, which could on occasion refer cases to Public Prosecution Service. That unit would embrace some of the existing institutions and bring them together. If the Haass report is to be given effect to, it would certainly be a much more powerful weapon than we have at the moment. There should also be an independent commission for information retrieval.
To acknowledge the past must be difficult. It is fairly easy at this distance to say, “Get on with it and do it”, but I fully understand how difficult it must be for everyone involved in Northern Ireland to acknowledge some of the things that happened in the past. It is a very difficult psychological process. So many people experienced pain and loss during the conflict. For many, there has been no closure or comfort to date. Haass states:

    “Some deaths can be attributed to state actors; the overwhelming majority, however, were caused by paramilitary organisations … For the vast majority of … people, there has been little in the way of closure or comfort; more than 3,000 conflict-related deaths were never solved”.

I shall not list all those deaths—there were many—but I happened to meet some time ago the families from Ballymurphy, scene of one of the painful episodes of the Troubles. As far as I know, there is no further process at the moment to look into what happened there. When I met the families, I said, “We can’t have another 10-year inquiry. It’s got to be much quicker than that, otherwise nobody will accept it”. I think that they agreed with that. Those families whom I met, and they may not be typical of everyone, said that all they wanted was for the truth to come out—no more or less than that. That seems very simple. It may be that other people want more than that; they may want action against people whom they see as the perpetrators. That becomes a more difficult process, because it undermines the way in which evidence can be collected. I was also assured that a lot of the evidence was in existence. Ballymurphy is only one of many incidents which need to be looked at.
In general, conflict situations are difficult to resolve, as we know. If no progress is made, it almost means that the process starts going backwards. It is clear that leadership is needed from all the parties on the Executive. The British Government together with the Irish Government can nudge the process on. We cannot solve it, because so many of the issues are devolved, although not all of them. For our part, if the House reports come to a positive conclusion, there will have to be some UK legislation as well coming through this House and the Commons. As I understand the position, we would need some legislation to deal with some of the issues raised by Haass. So I hope that that will also be possible.
There also needs to be the most widespread possible consultation in Northern Ireland. Just imposing a solution on them would simply not be acceptable. We have to bring the people of Northern Ireland with us in this process or the Northern Ireland Executive and politicians have to bring their people with them, and give the victims a chance to express their views and to comment specifically on any proposals.
I was in Northern Ireland as a junior Minister for two years, leading up to the Good Friday agreement and beyond. I always said to people, “I haven’t been personally affected by the Troubles. Nobody that I know has been affected by the troubles so it is easier for me and the other Ministers to say hello to everybody and deal with everybody”. None of the backlog of problems affected us so it was easier. I fully understand, however, that for people in Northern Ireland it is a much more difficult situation. Nevertheless, we want that to be the norm in the peace process so that people can express their views and are able to deal with the people who have transgressed.
I believe that the events in Northern Ireland are at a critical stage—very critical. It is essential that the British and Irish Governments use all their influence to persuade the Northern Ireland political parties to move forward—and, I have to say, to do so quickly.

Hansard source Citation: HL Deb, 22 October 2014, c699