Legacy Issues Affecting Victims and Relatives in Northern Ireland: Discussion (Resumed)

I would like to warmly welcome to our meeting Ms Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, and Mr. John Beggs, secretary to the Commission for Victims and Survivors. We will invite witnesses to give their opening statements, which will be followed by some questions from the committee. First, however, some notices are required.

I remind members, guests and those in the Visitors Gallery to please ensure that their mobile telephones, tablets etc. are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as they cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms, even when in silent mode.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now invite the witnesses to make their opening statements.

Ms Judith Thompson

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.

Normally we get three people ask questions and the witnesses can then reply. They have given us a broad and comprehensive view of the workload in which they are involved in regard to victims. They said some victims want to know information while others do not, some people feel let down and that some structures are lacking. I am conscious that many political leaders are sitting down today in order to try to come up with an agreement. We wish them well with the talks. Part of the talks will clearly involve a victim-centred approach to the new Assembly and so on.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today. I note they have always been willing to travel anywhere to discuss the work they are doing. It is really good work. At the end of the day, they are trying to get to the truth. How much does truth matter? Some people want absolute truth and want to know every single detail of what went on, while others want a general sketch or to forget something ever happened.

I was a member of the security forces. I referred to the security forces collusion during the worst period of what went on in Northern Ireland being airbrushed out of history to all intents and purposes. People regularly contact me and say there can be no reconciliation or putting things behind us unless not only those who saw themselves as being on the loyalist or republican side during the struggle in the North are dealt with but also the security forces who have walked away scot free.

People say to me that the Good Friday Agreement released prisoners, but they served time for the crimes they committed. Very few members of the security forces have served time for anything and they have not been called to account for their actions. They should be, but how far that goes I am not sure. I do not know whether they should be charged with crimes or brought to some sort of truth commission in which they can deal with some of the things they carried out. I would be interested in hearing the witnesses' views on that. It is a gaping hole in the reconciliation process.

There is now a whole generation of young adults who knew nothing of what went on in Northern Ireland other than what history tells them. In this country, we try to a large degree not to discuss our history. I recently saw a television documentary about something which went on in Northern Ireland. Somebody quite close to me asked whether it had to be shown and if it was not bringing everything back up again. To a certain degree, we want to forget what happened. There is an attitude that it should be left to certain people who can deal with it in a quiet room somewhere rather than having it brought to our attention.

I am concerned there are two types of victims in Northern Ireland. There are those who suffered trauma and those who were radicalised during the time involved, some of whom are having difficulty coming to terms with some of the acts they carried out. Some need to talk about them and others need to try to find reconciliation for what they did or were involved in or find peace in themselves.

I am concerned about those who are regarded as prisoners. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed and we opened the gates of prisons and allowed people from both sides of the community to come back out into society we still branded them as prisoners. They are still treated as prisoners. Some of the stories we have heard about the loading of car insurance, the inability to travel and disaffection with the system are concerning.

Some people are doing fine under the Good Friday Agreement but nobody has thought about a certain cohort. In a peculiar way, they are now in a position whereby they are almost unintentionally radicalising an entirely new generation in some parts of Northern Ireland because of their disaffection and fact that they have been treated badly, in their view. Perhaps they have.

One can stand in one part of Belfast and see an investment worth €1 billion less than half a mile away, but very little sign of the same investment in the community in which one is standing.

One can do the same thing in Dublin and funnily enough there are the same kind of societal problems. There is a growth of violence in north Dublin and I think there will also be a growth of violence in north Belfast in time. I am interested in the witnesses' views on that.

Brexit will bring a whole host of new problems for 1.8 million potential Irish citizens who are separated from their country by geography.

I was delighted to hear such an excellent, comprehensive presentation.

All of us are around long enough to have seen PEACE I, PEACE II, PEACE III and the witnesses referred to PEACE IV and its importance in trying to bring communities together, both north and south of the Border. In the context of Brexit it is a major concern that those moneys must be guaranteed beyond 2020. That needs to be highlighted here today because someone needs to step up and ensure that the excellent programmes being delivered by the commission and the community programmes to which Senator Craughwell referred, which may not have got down to where they needed, are able to continue. I am very conscious of that. Will the witnesses comment on that progress? The Special EU Programmes Body presented to us some time ago seemed unable to get any sense of funding beyond 2020.

I was interested in the mental health trauma network. We were given an estimate that approximately 90 people from the south were affected by outcomes of the Troubles, they might have been families of people in security forces, people who were murdered or otherwise. They were put through the ordinary HSE system. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, was before the committee and gave a commitment that services similar to those available in the North for those who have undergone trauma would be made available here. Is that happening?

I was not surprised to read the figure of 150 people having been murdered on both sides since the Good Friday Agreement, and many thousands have been maimed. What is the degree to which they can avail of the process, and where does one decide that everyone has been given an opportunity to create peace? How does one deal with that in terms of dealing with the victims, the average of eight a year since the Good Friday Agreement was signed?

I do not know the figures, but I have dealt with a considerable number of people outside the country, and others who are living in the South who are also victims who have not been able to return to the North. Equally, there are others who have had to leave the country for various issues. How do they feed into the trauma experiences? They are missing their native areas. Are the witnesses in contact with them or how are we reaching them?

Mr. Chris Hazzard

I thank Ms Thompson for her comprehensive and thought-provoking testimony, as would be expected. I welcome her comments around the statute of limitations. Recently, myself and some colleagues met with the proposers of that in Westminster. We were alarmed by the extent to which they seemed in a bubble and not to be aware of the process of reconciliation and recovery that is going on in this part of the world so I welcome her comments.

Ms Thompson referred to the unfinished business of peace. I want to ask around what I feel is the unforgotten part, namely gender. There should be a gender lens to all of this, and to transitional justice in particular. There has been a complete failure on the British Government's part and perhaps lip service from the Irish Government to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution, UNSCR 1325. That relates to a gender perspective for transitional justice which puts women at the centre. We know that in post-conflict societies violence against women is often far higher than in any other societies. It is a fact in the North that we have nearly 100 instances of violence against women daily. We know that it is a real issue but the British Government refuses to include the North in its action plan around UNSCR 1325. My analysis of the South is that it only pays lip service to it. To what extent has the commissioner's office engaged with London or Dublin on this issue, and especially around the need for a gender perspective? It is so important.

The justice vacuum was something Ms Thompson touched upon. She mentioned the importance of many institutions which are not in place including the Historical Investigations Unit, HIU, the Historical Enquiries Team, HET and the Institute for Conflict Research, ICR. We now have a moratorium on all police ombudsman reports while we await the outcome of the retired police officers judicial review against the Loughinisland findings and there is the issue of inquests. Victims and survivors are now having to take to the streets in civic peaceful protest. There is a march planned for the end of this month and we expect to see thousands on the streets on this. It is hugely frustrating to a great number of people. Can Ms Thompson comment on this?

Ms Judith Thompson

I will talk about some of the issues which Senator Craughwell raised on truth and justice and young people. I will ask my colleague Mr. John Beggs to speak about the peace programme and the mental health trauma network and support for young people who are victims of paramilitary violence. I will try to say something about gender and justice impacts.

Starting with gender, I agree that it is an area which is insufficiently explored and understood although it has been explored and we are very aware of the good research has been done. What is significant here historically is that the majority of people who were killed or injured during the Troubles were men. The majority, but by no means all, who were imprisoned were also men. There was a focus on men as those people who experienced violence. In association with each one of those incidents, there were women who brought up families at home in both parts of the community and dealt with a traumatic process of reintegration after separation.

We have one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the UK, and it is something I am very well aware of from my previous work. Last time I looked, looking at assaults and crimes of violence, it was the largest single factor. That includes assault, common assault and things such as criminal damage, where it has happened in the course of a domestic violence incident. We know it is at extremely high levels. At an anecdotal level, we know there is a connection between experience of trauma and domestic violence. I agree with Mr. Hazzard that it is insufficiently understood and researched. I know that in putting together the three research programmes I spoke about, it has been highlighted to us that we absolutely need to look at gender as a factor, both in impact on young people and in mental health trauma and engaging in the past.

Women's lives are shaped and changed through the Troubles just as men's have been. More of those involved, imprisoned and hurt were men, so that it is true that the focus has tended to be towards the men. I acknowledge the point and completely agree with Mr. Hazzard on its importance. We have some sense of it at an anecdotal and intuitive level, we have written it into the specification for our research and it something on which we are focusing.

I referred briefly to the impact on justice. We went through a process which is one of the most successful processes of police reform at the time. There was 50:50 recruitment, the special legislation to do that and a special recruitment process to do this and achieve in the region of 30% from the Catholic community, and around 30% female, which put it ahead of the rest of the UK.

That was a very significant achievement. The courts changed the way they did business and the way they engaged with the public. Judicial appointments were done differently and remain different. The prosecution service changed the way it was organised and changed the way it delivered prosecutions. Police stopped prosecuting cases in court. There was fundamental change across the board with the primary objective of creating a justice system was trusted, acknowledged and owned by all parts of the community. I would not want to completely say that has been dismantled in this case, but people’s trust in the system is being dismantled. Whether I am sitting in Kingsmill, west Belfast or somewhere in between, it is really hard to find victims and survivors who feel we have a justice system with the capacity or the will to do anything for them. That distrust is as corrosive as we knew it was before we went through justice reform.

It is not just me saying this. The Chief Constable has stated repeatedly that he cannot do his job today and deal with the past. He has said that failing to deal with the past is getting in the way of him doing his job today. It is fundamentally and clearly true. We have heard the police ombudsman. That critically important office was set up to create transparency and community trust and broad oversight to the process of policing. Yet, the police ombudsman says he cannot do his job because he is not funded properly. He is also tied up in a courts process which, equally, undermines his ability to do his job. It is a worrying development. We have a Chief Justice who has done a very credible job of taking on a problem not of his making in the coroners’ courts and put together some practical and costed proposals for dealing with a backlog no one thinks is acceptable, namely people waiting 40 years for an inquest. However, there is a lack of funding to tackle that. For everyone across the community in Northern Ireland, this unresolved matter is corrosive for our reformed justice system in the North, of which we were, rightly, proud.

Issues of truth, such as how much, who wants it and what it is, are incredibly difficult philosophical questions which we will never perfectly answer. However, we have an absolute obligation, as a place that is and wishes to be a democracy with a decent justice system, to do the best we can. We must also respect the fact that people have different wishes. As far as one can, one must, therefore, offer them choices and options. At its most fundamental and with regard to historical investigations, it would not be realistic of me to offer people a prospect of lots of successful prosecutions in respect of matters which happened 40 years ago. One has to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt and that is often not possible. However, to say to someone that they should, therefore, forget about it is not the right approach. I hear from all parts of the community that someone in a position of government authority could have prevented the harm that befell a family but it did not happen for reasons not related to that family's best interests. One cannot tell people to forget those things. As such, one needs a process of investigation even if the outcome is information for families and those who need to know rather than prosecutions. I suspect that for the most part, albeit as a justice process and an independent investigatory process, historical investigations will mostly deliver that. It will not tell people everything they want to hear.

It is necessary to provide support for people to engage in the process in an informed way, including mental health and personal support, because this is very difficult even for those who desperately want it. It is usually harder than anticipated. However, that does not mean one takes the option away. One gives people the option and the support so that those who want them can have those reports, even if they do not see a prosecution. I know people who have had HET reports which, with all their flaws. They have told me that while, for example, a son has read it, the person has not. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that they have it and they can choose to read it at some time. Sometimes, that is what people want. Is that truth going to be the whole truth? No. However, one has an obligation to do what is doable and to not sweep things under the carpet. Similarly, it is the case for information retrieval. People have some options. If there is a prosecution, it is a process that is out of the hands of the person who has been wronged. For the most part, this will be about information and reports which a person can choose to have or not. That gives people choices and options, as do information retrieval and the oral history archive. That is the fundamental answer to the Deputy's question. Different people want different things and that is why one provides options and the support to allow them to make those choices.

Mr. John Beggs

I will address some of the other questions. I welcome the comments on the need for continued peace funding beyond 2021. Currently, we have a commitment through the SEUPB and the victims and survivors service for funding up to 2021. Indeed, we attended a launch event yesterday for €17.6 million in funding for victims, survivors and funded groups to do sterling work around advocacy and health and well-being support. There is a programme of work to do. We have no commitment beyond 2021 and no one else does either. Certainly, we will advocate strongly, demonstrate the positive outcomes the current Peace IV programme will deliver and lobby hard to have that commitment extended beyond 2021. As Ms Thompson outlined in her presentation, the legacy institutions and bodies which are not yet established are not likely to be established for at least two more years. They are likely to run for at least five years from then. As such, this work will go on well into the next decade. It will be at least ten years. There is a need for continued peace funding alongside that to make it happen and to support victims and survivors. It is critical. We welcome that comment, therefore.

On the regional trauma network, there are plans in place, as Ms Thompson outlined, to establish a mental health trauma service in the North working with health and care trusts. It is still at an early stage of development but there was some funding through the Northern Ireland Executive before its collapse to get it set up. There is further work to do on the cross-Border, North-South dimension. While good work is being done at community and voluntary level with groups which are funded to do cross-Border work, work is outstanding at statutory level to set up those partnerships, North and South. We sit on a partnership board which is overseeing the regional trauma network and we will continue to lobby hard for that cross-Border engagement.

The 150 deaths which have occurred since 1998 were raised. We do not have a cut-off point of 1998 in the Commission. Our legislation runs beyond that and we see many people who have been injured post-1998 and who need support and we treat them as victims and survivors. We also work with the Commissioner for Children and Young People to provide support and develop services for younger people in particular. That is ongoing work.

I welcome the contributions of Ms Thompson and Mr. Beggs. While they were presented very well and in very good detail, the lack of progress is very disappointing. In his concluding comments just now, Mr. Beggs said it would be another two years before certain bodies are established. By definition, everyone is getting older. The survivors and the families of those victims who lost their lives include a cohort of persons with a higher age profile. It is most regrettable for victims, including those who still carry injuries, and families who lost loved ones that progress has not been made to date. Naturally, as people get older their health deteriorates, which compounds the problem.

It is very regrettable we do not have an assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland. Ms Thompson mentioned some of the work could be undertaken at present, but I would not have much confidence in the public service driving this type of work. It is work that needs political leadership from both communities. I am very much of the opinion that the maximum possible level of truth is needed regarding what went on, and the skullduggery, murder and mayhem carried out by state forces or paramilitaries. The truth should come out. We will never have a society at the right level of peace we need, and that we all hope for in the future, if we do not try to optimise the amount of truth we can get from people.

As people get older their memories fade. At our last meeting, the commissioners for the location of victims' remains came before the committee. They quite rightly pointed out that somebody might have what seems like a scintilla of information but which might be important, and memories fade. I am dispirited with the lack of political momentum at Westminster and on this island on addressing these issues. We think back to the work of Denis Bradley and Archbishop Eames some years ago. Some aspects of it were heavily criticised, but it set out a certain format for work to be done. That was a good eight or nine years ago. If some work or progress had been achieved on many of the measures outlined in that programme, perhaps we would be much further down the road and in better position than we are today.

As a representative of Cavan and Monaghan, I am very familiar with cross-Border programmes. It is absolutely essential that these programmes are continued. President Juncker made some comments recently that he would be supportive of PEACE funding post-2020. In fairness to the Chairman and members of the committee, we have engaged with Ministers from the Government and from the Northern Ireland Executive when it was in existence on the need to ensure this funding is continued to try to assist many of the communities most affected, and still are affected, by the difficulties of the era. I wish the witnesses well with their work. I sincerely hope we will be in a position to hear a more positive outlook. This is not a criticism of the witnesses, far from it, but of the political system, particularly in Westminster and Stormont, that has not put structures in place to listen to people before their memories start to fade even further.

Ms Judith Thompson

I endorse and wish to comment on some of what the Deputy has said. Every week people who could have benefited from knowing something they wanted to know or from a pension that would have let them live their lives better passes away. In a way, those people pass the baton to the next generation. In those families, it does not go away. People come into my office who are campaigning on behalf of their parents and grandparents. If we ask them who will pick it up if they are not around, they can tell us. It is tragic and it is wrong, but it does not bring an end to the matter.

A lot of work has been done on these bodies. A unit has been set up in the Department of Justice which has done the work of setting out a design template for the new institutions. While it is dispiriting that it is many years since the Eames Bradley report, on the other hand the kernel of what was in that report has stayed in the debate. It was crystallised further in the Haass O'Sullivan report, and what was agreed in Stormont House on these institutions, which are now in draft legislation are the accumulation of much work for a long time. I would not say it is all water under the bridge. I would say it has been a direction of travel. We do have a roadmap. In a sense, our politicians, our Government and our civic society are at a point where they just have to jump, and if we do not do it we will reap the consequences in terms of a failure in justice and in civil society. Having said this, I am frustrated but I am not dispirited. The people I talk to are frustrated and hurt, but they are not packing up their bags and going away, and I do not think these issues will. I believe there is momentum and that we will see progress. What I want to see is progress now. The work has been done and the roadmap has been drawn. It is an act of political will that we need at this point.

A number of people have indicated they wish to speak. I will take a group of them and then come back to the witnesses. I am conscious the witnesses need to leave at a certain time and I ask them to indicate when they have had enough questions.

Mr. Mickey Brady

I thank the witnesses for the presentation. I was going to ask what is the perspective of the witnesses on the Lord Chief Justice's request for funding and resources to clear the backlog of legacy inquests, as some people have been waiting for 46 years, but they have answered that question.

So-called welfare reform and its impact on victims and survivors has been mentioned. This is something I deal with as my background is welfare rights. It is having a huge effect on the population in general, but it will have a huge impact on victims and survivors where there is trauma, specific disabilities and mental health issues. It is not about reform but cuts, with regard to the disability living allowance, DLA, and the personal independence payment, PIP, and what has been going on. When I was in Westminster on Tuesday I met somebody who is a policy adviser to the disability groups there. The impact it is having there is magnified in the North, in particular with regard to victims and survivors. The system is basically ignoring some people who are severely disabled and it is important this issue is raised. It is something that needs to be constantly raised. We are still monitoring the impact on many people of the changeover from DLA to PIP. Historically we in the North have had higher rates of disability anyhow, but the conflict has certainly brought about specific cases that otherwise would not have happened. It is important that Ms Thompson has raised this issue. She mentioned approximately 500 people.

I thank Ms Thomson and Mr. Begg for a very wide ranging presentation. Many of the questions I wish to ask have already been asked and I will not go over them. They stated they met the Ministers for Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade together and that it was a very useful meeting. It is obvious the Irish Government is committed to building reconciliation in the North and putting the necessary mechanism in place for any bodies established. Have the witnesses met the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, since?

Ms Judith Thompson

I have met him twice, and I have met the Minister for Justice and Equality also. I have also met officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our office has regular contact with them.

Has he met the forum?

Ms Judith Thompson

He is about to meet the forum. We are trying to get a date that works. We hope it will happen in the coming weeks.

The witnesses have said that victims' voices are used to add legitimacy to divergent political opinions and we must be very careful not to use this course to politicise and polarise victims.

Ms Judith Thompson


Political parties should highlight these, but sometimes it becomes victim politics and political campaigns. Sometimes both sides have competing victimhood and it goes down a cul-de-sac. This is what political party sometimes do. In politics in the South, we can be accused of this, going back 60 or 70 years, on issues that were not as deep or should not have been as deep.

Sometimes when there are competing sides that are highlighting tragic issues, which is necessary to do, does the commission have a mechanism in place to check any possible imbalance or to say that people have got their publicity from an issue? Is the commission worried about that? Are we moving into an area from which there is no return? Victim politics or victimhood can be very difficult. Has the commission ever had to look at that? What are the witnesses' views on that? Is there a mechanism in place, or that could be put in place, to deal with it?

I have read the submission and I have listened to the commission representatives' answers to my colleagues, which have covered some of my points. Legacy is a complex aspect of all post-conflict countries. When we consider Rwanda, South Africa and the former Yugoslavia, I get the sense that some other countries have been more progressive than we have here. As people wait longer and longer they go in to a different frame of mind. The longer it goes on I believe it becomes more angry and more punitive. They are almost looking for heads on a plate because they have been left so long. If we could get to the basic conversation; do we draw a line under it and say there will be no prosecutions in the interest of getting to the truth and the information that would satisfy so many people?

From other legacy issue situations, such as the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, the hooded men and so on, we know how the British Government has been less than forthcoming. We have raised the issue with our own Ministers here and they say they raise it all the time but there seems to be little or no progress. I get the impression, certainly, that we are moving backwards with the British Government in that regard. Initially it was about the children of survivors but now we are talking about the grandchildren of survivors. It is so unfair and it fuels disaffection and disengagement in some communities. Not having a government in the North has contributed to this also.

With regard to the broader issue of truth one is always in a bit of difficulty when raising specific cases but there are responsibilities and an onus resting on the Irish Government also. Last week, for example, in the Seanad I raised the issue of the Crowley report into the murder of Aidan McAnespie. This report was carried out by the then Deputy Garda Commissioner Eugene Crowley. The Irish Government is refusing to release the report, even up to this point, despite calls from former presidents of the GAA and from Aidan McAnespie's family.

On the broader issues, Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Brendan Smith have referred to the devolved remit. While we all want to see a successful conclusion and outcome to the current talks, the key mechanisms around Stormont House and Fresh Start are there. The legislative responsibility, however, for those issues rests in the first instance with the Government. Even in the absence of an agreement around the current talks, the Government is able to legislate for, and enable, those mechanisms that everyone has broadly agreed are the best way forward at this stage. It is useful to reflect on that.

I apologise in advance if this next question was already asked or referred to while I was out of the room. The recent Haggarty case throws up some particularly worrying issues. It is a concern given the alleged offences - not alleged now I suppose - of Gary Haggarty and the handling of him as a special branch agent. There is a culpability and responsibility in respect of the consequences for those handlers outside of the political sphere. This further reinforces the complex and comprehensive nature of legacy, truth recovery and justice for people within the judicial and legal world. When someone who is clearly identified as a serial killer and an agent of crown forces is given such a lenient verdict in that regard, and when the people who handled him and were aware of all that go scot free, what sort of message does this send to other victims? When we talk of trans-generational issues of concern, I imagine there is also the issue of re-traumatising victims, not just of Haggarty but also victims elsewhere who are viewing that case.

Ms Judith Thompson

I will ask John Beggs to answer the questions around welfare reform because he has led the commission's work on that. I will talk briefly on the issues around victims as political footballs and what could happen to improve that situation. I will also look at the way forward through truth or justice and some of the issues that have been raised on the recent verdict and the impact of justice on people's health.

Mr. John Beggs

The point was made that welfare reform is of critical importance to victims and survivors. For the last five years since we heard that welfare reform is coming, the commission and some of our forum members have lobbied very hard, initially with Lord Freud, to try to reduce the impact on victims and survivors. We are aware that over the past year or so and the next year or so, 125,000 reassessments of the move from disability living allowance, DLA to the personal independence payment, PIP, have taken place and will take place. We are aware that one third of the population are victims and survivors so a high proportion of people who are victims and survivors who are going through those reassessments with physical injuries, mental health injuries and problems. The commission is trying to minimise the impact on those people. We welcome the Evason report, which put in place some mitigation measures to acknowledge the impact of the legacy and to protect victim and survivors. We are now starting to hear evidence on the ground of individual case studies where victims and survivors are not content with the process or the outcome of the DLA to PIP reassessments. Currently there is a call for evidence from the Department for Communities to make evidence to that and to lobby on behalf of victims and survivors. The commission is currently doing this and we are working with a lot of groups that are funded especially to work with victims and survivors to reduce that welfare impact. We are gathering the evidence at the moment and we hope to submit that in the next couple of months. It is, however, a big issue of critical importance for us.

Ms Judith Thompson

I will pick up on some of Senator Feighan's issues. I spoke about different victims' voices being used to add legitimacy to divergent political views. This ends up in a situation where it appears that the victims cannot agree and where the issue becomes a political battle on territory that is people's lives and experiences. Often those people have said to me that "Look, nobody spoke to me before I was used as an example of what this or that person did." I believe, from my experience, that if one puts people together who have suffered harm, they will broadly agree with one another and will understand one another's experience. For example, regardless of who they may want to see held accountable, whoever it is, it is a fair transparent and properly resourced justice system or legacy institutions that will deliver that for them. If a person has suffered trauma, he or she wants a decent trauma network. If a person has suffered harm and wants truth then he or she wants truth. It does not matter who harmed the person, but it is those other things that he or she will want to have. It is not victims and survivors who cannot agree; it is in fact a problem for victims and survivors that they become the battleground over which different political narratives are fought. It is to the detriment of their best interests because too often, the political narratives get locked and the actual individuals who are waiting for legislation, pensions and services are still waiting.

It is important to stop using victims to illustrate or add weight to differing political perspectives and accept that, broadly, whether it is legislation, policy or services, what people who have been harmed want to see in place is an agreed core. Of course, there are things on which people do not agree. We are all different. However, there is an agreed core and a range of options that could meet most people's needs. What are we doing about it? First, the forum in itself embodies that in the fact that we have brought 23 people together from completely diverse backgrounds with completely diverse experiences. They have demonstrated the ability to engage in a respectful conversation about what they agree and disagree on and to adopt a shared position on dealing with the past. That is a model of leadership, which is what we need to see on a broader civic level.

There are also some very harmful consequences of the political polarisation of the issue. I am not pointing in any one direction – it happens across the board. What happens is that one finds a victim constituency, which may not see itself as a constituency but may be seen that way by those outside it, being held to represent a particular political view. Those of another view do not then respect the harm and experience of those people. If I am not making sense there, I mean that when victims find themselves turned into an emblem or symbol for a particular political belief, they often find that people of different political beliefs are disrespectful of their experience or sometimes blame them. That has happened to victims and survivors wherever they come from. They would understand from each other's point of view that it is never okay to do that. Queen's University has been doing a piece of a work for a year to which we have been connected. It looks at what it calls "voice, agency and blame". In many senses, it is unpicking some of those difficult issues. One part of that project will involve coming up with guidelines for media and others in the public realm as to how to use and not use victims and victims' issues in the process of putting across a point of view or holding a debate. We believe that is an incredibly important project. The forum has been involved in it and I am encouraging other victims, individuals and groups who have been particularly upset by things that have happened over recent months to get engaged with it also. We hope the guidelines can be something more than simple guidelines but may, in fact, be a charter we would ask people to sign up to. It is very important to establish that victims and survivors have a lot of common ground. That common ground is important stuff for everyone to engage with to move forward as a society. It is not all right to derive legitimacy or impact in media or politics by using the experiences of people who will be adversely affected.

I will be brief as I have to go to another meeting. The 150 paramilitary deaths since the Good Friday Agreement are obviously of concern. Have these deaths occurred because a lot of the infrastructure remains in place and is being allowed to remain in place for the sake of, one cannot say "peace", but perhaps stability? How much funding is required? One can set up all the infrastructure one wants, historical investigations and information retrieval units, oral history archives, and implementation processes, but if these are starved of funding, as has happened, it is all for nothing. It is merely press releases and agreements without implementation or the capacity to implement. Where is the initiative on communities in transition at and is it working? We are going to Glencree on Tuesday. The attempt to replicate what happened in South Africa has eventually run into the sand. Should that have stayed the course, should it be revived or is it too late?

It is 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and we are the Good Friday implementation committee. One of the issues I keep bringing up is that we still do not know what is left to be implemented notwithstanding our designation as the implementation committee. What the forum is putting together is the ongoing building of the Good Friday Agreement. It cannot stay as it was 20 years ago and it has changed over time. Ultimately, how much money is needed – I know it is a lot - to support the next generation of victims? As Ms Thompson pointed out, there are people who are victims of the Troubles who were not born at the time. There is a ripple effect to the next generation. Children and grandchildren who were not alive during the Troubles are now their victims in essence. Is the problem a lack of funding or of will?

The historical investigations unit is interesting because pretty much no side has an interest in the truth. There are people in every organisation with things to hide and, ultimately, those organisations which are using victims for their own ends do not want the truth to come out. While they might want the truth to come out on one side, they do not want it to come out about what they were doing because everybody had informers inside. If that truth comes out, how can it be managed, if at all? The South African process is the interesting one. Did it work? Why did ours not work?

Ms Judith Thompson

In some ways, that covers some of the same issues Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised. I will try to answer those.

If she has asked those questions, that is fine. I apologise for being away from the committee.

Ms Judith Thompson

What has been proposed and not carried through in Northern Ireland is not exactly a truth and reconciliation commission, it is something different. We have held to a kind of legal framework. There is an historical investigations unit. It is not a truth process where someone comes in and says “Here is the truth”. It is an investigation and it will be evidence based. Broadly, that is what I hear people say. They ask how they can know the truth of something where they ask someone for information. They ask how would the person they asked even know, given the passage of time and people's memories. A principle of justice and looking at the evidence and having due process is maintained while at the same time the outcome of the process, as I have said so often and as I keep saying, will not be a lot of prosecutions. That is not going to be possible or likely. It is a rather different process.

The other thing I note is that these things take a lot of time. I was in Cambodia at Christmas. Cambodia had its peace deal around the time we had ours. It is a different society and it deals with things differently but it still has its international courts trying to deal with historic cases. Those issues have not all gone away as one finds when one has quiet conversations with people. I was in Bosnia last year. One looks at the length of time the hurt and division exist. It is dreadful to witness but in a way it tells us that we are not that unusual. These things cast a very long shadow. As to whether truth and reconciliation worked in South Africa, do we know yet? It takes a while and nothing is ever perfect. Why has it not worked in Northern Ireland? It is because we have not done it yet. We have done many things and many of those things have worked. The place has changed amazingly, but we have not dealt with the past and we have not done the victims any service by failing to acknowledge some of what happened to them. There is a toxic impact from sweeping things under the carpet and we are seeing that for individuals, for families, at a social level and for our justice system.

I was asked what it would cost. There are two answers to that. We do not know exactly what it would cost but if one asks the Department of Justice in the North, one finds it has done a lot of the sums. We know €150 million was promised from Westminster and we know it is not enough. A larger sum has been mentioned. The work is being done on that. The other question, however, is what it costs not to do it. A number of years ago, the criminal justice inspectorate in Northern Ireland prepared a report which is now out of date. I am sure the figures involved have greatly increased, but at that stage, we were spending approximately €30 million a year to do things that were not working. To that one must add the current cost of judicial reviews, backlogged cases, inquests and inquiries which are, let us face it, simply existing processes into which people are trying to shoehorn themselves in the absence of access to a proper process. If one adds up the cost of doing nothing, or doing things that do not work, over decades and sets that against the cost of the proposed institutions, the question is how one can justify not doing it, not only in financial terms but in terms of the impact on us.

In her opening statement Ms Thompson quoted from the Good Friday Agreement: "The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be a true memorial to the victims of violence." I thank the witnesses for their invitation to meet the Victims and Survivors Forum, which the committee will certainly consider. The witnesses and their commission's independent voice and effort to address the very divisive issues of the legacy of the past are appreciated and central to the Good Friday Agreement. On behalf of the committee I thank the commissioner, Ms Thompson, and Mr Beggs for appearing before the joint committee and answering its questions so comprehensively. We wish them well with their work. I think we all accept it is really useful. It is a part of not only our looking into legacy issues, but also moving this situation forward.

I now propose to go into private session to deal with some housekeeping issues. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.11 p.m. and adjourned at 4.29 p.m sine die.