I would like to start by thanking the committee for inviting Mr. Beggs and I to speak about our current work and the key issues for victims and survivors of the Troubles as we see them. This is the first time I have addressed this committee. It feels very timely to do so, as we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement; as we face, still, proposals for consultation on the legacy institutions, those measures for dealing with the past which were agreed at Stormont House; and also because of the potential impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and on victims and survivors. Furthermore, we are at the moment implementing a significant PEACE IV project, led by ourselves and our sister organisation, the Victims and Survivors Service. We believe this has a significant role to play in building capacity and capability across the community and voluntary sector, both in the North and in the Border region, and for victims and survivors living outside Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland and other parts of the UK. That is a significant piece of work which I would also like to touch on during my presentation today.
In the months ahead, as we approach that twentieth anniversary, there will clearly be a period of reflection and commentary on the commitments in the Good Friday Agreement, including those explicit references to supporting victims and survivors of the conflict. The agreement stated: "It is recognised that victims have a right to remember as well as to contribute to a changed society. The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence."
Very importantly, the Agreement also highlighted the disproportionate impact of the Troubles on younger generations, and the potential trans-generational effect of the conflict, which we are now seeing. The Agreement stated: "The participants [in the negotiations] particularly recognise that young people from areas affected by the troubles face particular difficulties and will support the development of special community-based initiatives based on international best practice."
The Agreement also noted: "An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society".
These commitments, made in the Agreement, are still of critical importance, and in many respects are the unfinished business of peace.
Before I discuss further the key issues currently facing victims and survivors, I would like to introduce members to the Victims and Survivors Forum. Part of my legislative responsibility and the British Government strategy for victims and survivors is to convene a forum for consultation and discussion on victims' issues. It aims to engender a process which brings together a representative group of people. There are currently 23 members of the forum, who are balanced in terms of gender, community of origin and, in so far as possible, origin of harm. They are there as volunteers to engage in discussion in order to find common ground and are committed to creating a better future for everybody in Northern Ireland. It is an important civic process which is advisory to me. I also talk to other victims and survivors groups and individuals but this is a core group of people who work together in a consistent way to inform policy and put victims and survivors at the heart of policy development and legislation in a balanced and holistic way. That is particularly important because, in the view of victims and survivors, their voices are too often used in politics and the media to add legitimacy to differing political views or to illustrate divergent political narratives with which they often do not fully agree, leading to a sense of frustration. This often creates the perception that victims and survivors cannot agree on the way forward. My experience and that of the commission are very different. If one puts the 23 people to whom I refer, who have suffered harm at the hand of many different organisations and often more than one, in a room and asks them to find common ground and the best way forward, they usually will do so and, where they cannot agree, they are respectful and clear about that. They can provide leadership in that regard and more broadly. The forum captures the common will of everybody who has suffered harm in order to ensure that nobody else suffers such harm, which sometimes gets lost in discussion of the issues of victims and survivors. Although we are delighted to be here, I would like to offer the committee the opportunity to meet members of the victims forum if it so wishes. We would be delighted to make that happen.
In terms of issues to address, I wish to first discuss the proposed consultation on the legacy institutions outlined in the Stormont House Agreement. I am sure that members, who have heard extensive evidence on the subject, are aware of the current high level of frustration with continued delays in starting a consultation process to move those bodies forward. To some extent, we recognise those delays are related to a current political impasse and other recent political events but I have strongly impressed on all political parties and Governments and also impress upon the committee that it is vitally important to move forward on consultation as a first step to implementation of the bodies agreed in the Stormont House Agreement, namely, that there should be a historical investigations unit, that is, an investigative body independent of the police to investigate outstanding Troubles deaths. Given the time that has elapsed, we do not expect that to result in a large number of prosecutions. The major product of the historical investigations unit would be evidence-based reports for families and a society that desires to know the truth of what happened in many cases where that has not been established to date. An information retrieval process outside the justice process but enabling those who wish for information given confidentiality and without the prospect of it being part of a justice process to be given to them should also be established. That will facilitate individuals who want to know what happened to family members. An oral history archive founded on legislation but with the potential to capture different narratives and be a resource for understanding, debate and reconciliation is required. There is also a need for an information and reparation group and-or implementation of reparation group, IRG. Although there is currently no draft legislation for that body, it is the view and advice of the commission that appropriate legislation should be put in place such that the body would begin to tackle the consideration of the thematic acknowledgement of harm rather than looking at individual cases. A mental health trauma network was provided for in the Stormont House Agreement and does not require legislation as it exists in policy. However, it needs better funding and further implementation. I will come back to that. It should be of benefit to those living in areas, North and South, close to the Border and could provide learning, if not direct service, to people living in the Republic of Ireland who have suffered trauma, hardship and harm.
Those initiatives, along with a pension for the severely disabled, were part of the Stormont House Agreement. Some, including the oral history archive, information retrieval and historical investigations, would require Westminster legislation to implement. As members are aware, we have draft legislation ready for consultation. The implementation of a pension for the severely disabled would require legislation, although it is currently a devolved matter. Legislation should be put in place to fully implement the IRG, the acknowledgement of which is a very important part of this process. However, it is frustrating that this action has all been stalled. The first step is consultation on the legislative matters which can be progressed by Westminster and for which we have draft legislation more or less ready to consult.
Over recent months, our victims and survivors forum, together with the commission, have met with the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State, and representatives from all political parties in Northern Ireland. The message that although an assembly is desirable in order to progress these matters it is not essential and in its absence consultation could progress in respect of those matters governed by Westminster legislation, such as the historical investigations, oral history archive and the information retrieval process, has been consistently given by the forum and commission and that has been agreed by the Northern Ireland political parties.
The forum, the commission, my staff and I believe that the consultation process must be transparent, accessible and meaningful. Any published information should be clear and explicit as to what will be done and how. It must not to be a box-ticking exercise but, rather, proactively seek input from victims and survivors in the North of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and beyond. The process should not confine itself to the victim sector but should also seek to engage with wider civic society because the resolution of outstanding matters from the past is not just for the benefit of those who personally suffered as it is becoming increasingly clear it is very important from a civic point of view as a way of moving to a more prosperous and united future.
I have enjoyed meeting officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Just before Christmas, I met the Tánaste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. It was a very useful meeting, as such meetings always are, and it is very clear that the Government has been committed to building reconciliation in the North and helping the proposed mechanisms to be progressed. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has agreed to meet with the forum for victims and survivors. I appreciate that he is busy in his new role as Tánaiste but we hope to soon meet him because the alternative is that the political situation will continue to fester and the lack of progress will continue to have a corrosive effect on justice institutions in the North.
We went through a very comprehensive and quite successful process of justice reform as part of and resulting from the Good Friday Agreement.
That is being unpicked, or at least confidence in it is being unpicked, by this failure to deal with legacy. That has a civic impact as well. This unfinished piece is really becoming quite deeply harmful, and I do not believe we should ever underestimate the extent to which the huge amount that has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement can be undermined if we fail to deal properly and in a transparent, effective and victim-centred way with outstanding legacy matters.
Another matter which is not a part of the Stormont House Agreement but which I want to touch on is the Defence Committee's proposal for what it has termed the statute of limitations, but which the legal advisers to that committee described as an amnesty. It is very clear from that legal advice and from other subsequent advice from the Human Rights Commission that, were there to be such an amnesty or statute of limitations, it would inevitably apply to all actors. It would be akin to asking people to forget about what happened and that we develop a collective amnesia in relation to the past. I do not believe, from talking to victims and survivors in my forum, that is what people want. Different people want different things. Not everybody wants to see justice through to its conclusion. Not everybody wants to know what happened. However, there is a general acknowledgment - at a civic level as well - that this cannot be ended by our being told to forget about it. There have been so many deaths. There must be a process, and any attempt to derail that process through the introduction of proposals - not to mention the reality - of a blanket amnesty is not going to move us forward in a civic way. It is not going to meet the needs or wishes of many of those who were harmed. It is not going to provide us with a psychologically healthy place from which to progress. It is the view of the Commission for Victims and Survivors and of most of the victims and survivors to whom I speak that that is an unhelpful way of dealing with the past and that the proposal itself threatens to distract from, or potentially even undermine, the proposals that have been worked on for a long time and have been arrived at through a long, difficult process. That is a concern at the moment.
Twenty years ago the Good Friday Agreement foresaw the impact of the conflict on children and young people and research studies in recent years have highlighted how the legacy of the Troubles still continues to affect the lives of children and young people growing up in Northern Ireland, and beyond, today. The Commission’s 2015 Towards a Better Future study revealed that the conflict’s legacy is complex. It involves an interaction of many different factors, including exposure to parental mental ill-health, to parental exposure to trauma, as well as exposure to the wider social environment that is still affected by segregation, sectarianism and ongoing paramilitarism.
I would like to comment briefly on that very serious issue. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement more than 150 individuals have lost their lives as a consequence of paramilitary violence. Hundreds more have been subjected to brutalising attacks by paramilitary organisations. As an enduring conflict legacy issue, paramilitarism can be viewed as a significant factor perpetuating trans-generational harm. There are serious consequences for the mental health of people who suffered harm in the Troubles when they still see violence happening in the news and on their doorsteps. It is a serious issue when children and young people are exposed to the threat of violence or the reality of that violence in their home areas. Those areas are the places which were most affected in the first instance by Troubles-related violence. They are also the areas where social and economic deprivation tends to be highest. There are complex interrelated factors here, but it is a toxic legacy for some parts of Northern Ireland.
One major concern I have about Brexit is how the EU Victims’ Rights Directive may be protected in that context. Adopted by the EU in October 2012, the victims’ rights directive means that all victims of crime and their family members are recognised and treated in a respectful and non-discriminatory manner based on an individual approach tailored to the victims' needs. We have very specific rights in the context of historical investigations. I am aware that that directive has been embedded in legislation in the Republic of Ireland. I am also aware that it is embedded in policy and legislation in the North of Ireland. We are advised that should we come to a point of implementing historical investigations, for example, or information retrieval, then those people and the families going through that process would be entitled to the rights given to them under that directive. That is important in terms of ensuring that people are supported, protected if necessary, and given access to good information as they go through those processes. Resources need to be in place to do that. Given the extensive consultation and support for the Victims Charter in the North of Ireland and in the Republic, I am not saying that it is likely to be repealed or diminished. We do need to keep an eye on it, however, in the context of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.
Equally, in the absence of the proposed legacy bodies, it has been possible for some individuals to achievd investigations through international human rights legislation. That has been a significant factor in people’s ability to bring historical matters before the courts. It is an important context for the proposed measures for dealing with the past, all of which must be – and are designed to be – Article 2 compliant. Human rights legislation is important in this context, and again, in the context of Brexit, it is important that piece of the jigsaw is well remembered and safeguarded in the process.
In terms of our current work I want to mention the PEACE IV funded programme which is being delivered as a lead partner to the parties for victims and survivors services. There is a total of €18 million, which will all be spent on building capacity services for victims and survivors in the areas of health and well-being, and also in the area of advocacy for justice. Some will also be spent on welfare reform. Underpinning those three strands to service delivery, where capacity will be built in the voluntary and community sector using this money, the Commission will run a three-pronged research programme to evaluate and learn from the implementation of that funding and also to contribute to the way legacy institutions can be implemented to ensure that we do it in a fully victim-centred way. Under the €17.6 million PEACE IV Victims and Survivor Programme, the Commission has been appointed to manage a three year research programme with a budget of £250,000. This research programme will consist of three separate but interconnected projects that will examine issues that continue to impact on the lives of victims and survivors both in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland.
The review of trauma services project, which is the first of the programme’s research projects, is a three year study which will provide the opportunity to explore the lived experiences of victims and survivors and their families whilst they go through trauma-related psychological therapy treatment and other support. The findings from this research will add value to therapy service provision for service users in the future.
The trans-generational legacy and young people project is also a three year study which will engage in dialogue with young people and, where appropriate, their parents, and will seek to really understand the continuing impact of conflict on the lives of young people, with the end goal of putting services in place that will most effectively enable such people to manage its impact.
Finally, the advocacy services project is a two year study that will look at the experiences of victims and their families as they access advocacy support services, either in relation to Police Ombudsman investigations, to legacy inquests or legacy investigations by the police. Hopefully, as we move towards the new institutions, which will deal in a more holistic way with the experiences of people. We want to learn about how best to deliver these services, what is most effective, and what each victim needs going forward.
The commission also worked very closely with the pensioner need working group for the forum to look at implementing pensions for the severely injured. As I said, that was referenced in the Stormont House agreement, but the legislation which is needed to put in place has not yet been developed or agreed. It remains a devolved matter, which is being delayed through the absence of an Assembly.
We produced policy advice on this in 2014 and were very strongly of the view that this is an important legacy issue which needs to be addressed. The committee heard from the Wave organisation about the 500 most severely injured people who are getting older, living on benefits and experiencing the impact of welfare reform. They need to be looked after now not later.
In terms of improving health and well-being services, we work very closely with the victims and survivors service and the executive office. There is a budget of £13 million a year from the executive office, which is dispersed between different victim support NGOs and some individual needs payments.
Through PEACE IV, there is the addition of individual needs support from caseworkers for up to 18,000 individuals who are registered with the VSS and funding groups. Those case workers are in place and early indications are that the process is working well. The monitoring and evaluation data from this will come to the commission as part of our research project into the impact of that PEACE funding.
The regional trauma network is referenced in the Stormont House Agreement as a mental health trauma service. In September 2015, the then Health Minister announced, in line with that commitment, a comprehensive regional mental health trauma network for Northern Ireland and the Border region to ensure that victims and survivors have timely access to high-quality trauma services by trauma informed therapists. We should be expert at doing this, but at the moment it is patchy and not everybody who needs those services gets them. PEACE IV funding is playing a critical role in supporting the development of the regional trauma network through the provision of caseworkers and growing capacity of the third sector to play a role as a fundamental building block of a service which is then supplemented with a networking rearrangement with the health service.
In conclusion, from my opening points it can be seen that we are clearly moving into a period of significant reflection and change in the months ahead for victims and survivors. I recognise that some of these developments will potentially have a profound impact on many victims and survivors and their families. While much work and investment has been made over the past ten years in improving services, the time has come to address the underlying legacy of our past.
The culmination of previous proposals to deal with the past now provide us with a roadmap to press ahead, and consultation is the first step in this roadmap. Some 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, these measures are our best chance of dealing with unfinished business and delivering the best outcome for victims and survivors. It will not be perfect, easy or comfortable for anybody, but we have tried not doing it for 20 years and that has not worked. It is time we tried to engage with this difficult stuff and do it in the best way we possibly can in a victim-centred way.
I hope that through the work of my office, the forum and collaboration with a range of stakeholders that we can collectively improve the well-being of victims and survivors and build a better and more reconciled society for them and their families and everyone in Northern Ireland. This is not just for victims and survivors; it is something we have to do at a civic level for everybody. I thank the committee for giving us time to talk.