Villiers: A way forward for legacy of the past in Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State today gave a key note speech addressing the Government's approach and proposed way forward to dealing with legacy of the past in Northern Ireland.

This morning I want to talk about this Government’s approach to the past, and set out our proposed way forward on delivering the legacy bodies in the Stormont House Agreement.

It is evident that for many people in today’s Northern Ireland, the legacy of the past continues to cast a very dark shadow over the present.

And it’s not hard to see why.

Over the period of the so-called Troubles, broadly speaking from 1968 to 1998, over 3,500 people were killed, mostly, though not all, here in Northern Ireland.

Thousands more were maimed or injured.

Businesses and livelihoods were destroyed, pre-existing sectarian divisions were deepened and entrenched.

Widespread disruption, either as a result of terrorist activity or the security presence needed to counter it, was a daily fact of life.

And of course of those who might not have suffered physically, many still carry the mental scars of what happened.

Bearing in mind that for much of this period the population of Northern Ireland was around 1.5 million, it follows that a large proportion of those living here were directly touched by the Troubles.

And even those not directly affected themselves will invariably know someone who was.

So I never underestimate the continuing impact of the Troubles today, not just on individuals, but also on society more widely.

For all that’s been achieved in moving Northern Ireland forward, public housing and education is still very segregated, interface barriers loom over many streets, and disputes over flags and parades retain the capacity to spill over into serious public disorder.

Moreover the costs of division are an additional financial burden on an already stretched public purse.

So as the representative of the sovereign Government here I am acutely aware that we have a responsibility to do all that we can to tackle the legacy of the past in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Government fully recognises that it will be much more difficult to achieve our objective of building a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland unless and until we can find some way of coming to terms with a divided past.

Of course people’s opinions on the past will always differ sharply, shaped by their own background and experiences.

It is not an area where we can ever achieve a consensus view on what happened, though we might at least be able to come to some common understanding of key facts through initiatives like the historical timeline project envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement.

For the record I want to set out the position of this UK Government.

The first and most fundamental point is this.

In our view terrorism was wholly wrong.

It was never and could never be justified,from whichever side it came, republican or loyalist.

No injustice, perceived or otherwise, warranted the violent actions of the paramilitary groups.

The terrorist campaigns caused untold misery and suffering.

And we will never agree with a version of history that seeks to legitimise them.

We wholly reject any suggestion of equivalence between the security forces and those who carried out acts of terrorism.

And I believe that there is a real risk that those who seek to justify the terrorist violence of the past risk giving a spurious legitimacy to the terrorist violence of the present.

Ultimately, of course, terrorism did not succeed here.

And I believe there were three main reasons for that.

First, there was the sheer resilience of the people of Northern Ireland, supported by the overwhelming majority of citizens throughout these islands.

In this I include those involved in politics, business, and wider society who even in the darkest days, and often at great personal risk, helped to hold this place together.

Second, there was the insistence of successive UK Governments that the future of Northern Ireland would only ever be determined by democracy, and never by violence.

The consent principle enshrined in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration which went on to form such a key part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

And third, there was the remarkable dedication, professionalism and courage of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Armed Forces.

Over 1,000 members of the security forces lost their lives over the period of Operation Banner - the longest continuous military deployment in our country’s history.

Around 7000 awards for bravery were made and, quite simply without the dedication of the security forces to keeping people here safe, the circumstances that enabled the peace process to take root would never have happened.

Yet today we face a pernicious counter narrative.

It is a version of the Troubles that seeks to displace responsibility from the people who perpetrated acts of terrorism and place the State at the heart of nearly every atrocity and murder that took place - be it through allegations of collusion,misuse of agents and informers or other forms of unlawful activity.

For some, every allegation of wrongdoing by the State - or those working for it - is treated as fact,however unsubstantiated or whatever the source, and whatever the consequential distress to victims.

Let me be clear.

I am not going to say that over a period of thirty years there were no instances where members of the police and armed services fell below the high standards we expect of them.

Sadly we know that there are some truly shocking instances where they fell drastically short of those standards.

That includes the appalling murder of Patrick Finucane, the anniversary of whose death takes place tomorrow.

And like the Prime Minister I will never seek to defend the security forces by defending the indefensible.

Where there is evidence of wrongdoing it will be pursued. Everyone is subject to the rule of law.

Yet we need to be mindful of the context in which the security forces were operating.

While we will always judge our security forces against the highest standards of integrity and professionalism, both then and now, we do need to recognise that policing practice and methodology has changed radically over the intervening years, right across the UK.

We should therefore be wary of expecting modern investigatory practices to have been applied in past decades, lest we become guilty of historical anachronism.

We should also be conscious that gathering and assessing intelligence is not, and never will be, an exact science.

It varies greatly in quality, clarity and reliability.

Assessing its credibility can frequently involve finely balanced judgements.

What might seem to have a certain meaning with hindsight, at the time could well have been just one of a long list of conflicting and vague reports all pointing in different directions.

As a government, we have been more forthcoming than any of our predecessors in accepting where the State has failed to live to the highest standards, and in apologising where that is the right thing to do.

The Prime Minister’s ground-breaking statement on Bloody Sunday is the most obvious example of that, but it’s not the only case.

We also issued full and clear apologies in the Patrick Finucane and Claudy cases.

And where it is warranted we will continue to do this.

But to suggest that misconduct by the police and our Armed Forces was somehow rife or endemic is, in the view of this Government, a deliberate distortion and a narrative of the Troubles that is not justified by the facts.

Of all the deaths that occurred during the Troubles, 60 per cent were caused by republican groupings, 30 per cent by loyalists, and 10 per cent by the State.

I don’t for one moment dismiss the scale of the tragedy which that 10 per cent involves.

It includes many terrible losses for which families still grieve to this day.

But over 250,000 men and women served in the RUC and the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

I am convinced that in the vast, vast majority of cases they carried out their duties with exemplary professionalism, fully within the law.

Remember this.

It wasn’t the RUC or the Army who planted the bombs at La Mon, Enniskillen, or the Shankill, or pulled the triggers at Loughinisland or Greysteel.

But it was the RUC and the Army who, often at great personal danger , foiled countless terrorist plots and attacks and in doing so saved hundreds of lives.

So as we said in our manifesto we will always salute the RUC and our Armed Forces for the role they played and the sacrifice they made.

We will never forget the debt of gratitude that we owe them.

Today of course Northern Ireland is a very different place.

While we continue to face a severe and lethal threat from dissident groupings, the overall security situation has been transformed.

We have inclusive, power sharing devolved government, with parties taking their place in the executive as of right and according to their mandate.

Because of the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements I believe devolution is now on a more secure and stable footing than for some time.

Thanks to the UK Government’s long term economic plan, and to the hard work of the people of Northern Ireland and the Executive they elect, the economy is growing and unemployment is falling.

But as I said at the outset of my speech, legacy issues have a continuing capacity to disrupt that hard won political progress.

There is a pressing need to make progress because it is clear that the current structures for dealing with legacy cases are not working as they should.

They are not working for victims and survivors - as I know at first hand from my many meetings with their representatives.

They currently focus disproportionately on cases where the State was involved or alleged to be involved, leaving families in other cases feeling overlooked and disregarded.

And the legal aid bill continues to grow, diverting resources which could be used for policing the present rather than the past.

I fully understand the concern felt about delays in the inquest system and would emphasise that the UK government and its agencies and the PSNI are working hard to fulfil the disclosure requirements placed on us.

I do not accept the argument that the problems with inquests stem from lack of commitment on the part of the Government or the police.

The PSNI holds over 9 million documents relating to the Troubles and they and the MoD have between them disclosed thousands of documents through inquests and other legal processes.

Rather, it’s a simple fact that the current system was never designed to cope with a large number of highly complex and sometimes linked cases involving very sensitive information.

So we will continue to seek a workable reform of the system of legacy inquests.

I understand the concern felt about resources and if reforms go forward, of course the UK Government would look very seriously at whether some of the Stormont House legacy funding could be released early to support inquests.

But even the problems with inquests are tackled, it is clear that additional mechanisms are needed.

So we are committed to establishing the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House Agreement - the Historical Investigations Unit, the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group, along with the Oral History Archive and the Historical Timeline project.

We have an express manifesto commitment to deliver them.

And in our view, they offer the best way forward if we are to achieve better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles.

They also come with an additional £150 million of funding from the UK Government - just one part of the financial packages supporting the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements which give the Executive around £2.5 billion in extra spending power to reflect the unique circumstances faced by Northern Ireland.

So the Government shares the widespread disappointment felt that the Fresh Start talks last year were unable to deliver the new structures set out in the Stormont House Agreement.

And today I re-affirm the Government’s determination to do all that we can to remedy that -working with victims’ groups,with the Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government on seeking a way forward.

In fact this Government has taken this issue further forward than any of our predecessors.

Very significant progress was made in both sets of cross party talks thanks to the hard work of the participants, including dedicated input from Charlie Flanagan and the Irish Government.

I believe we are closer than ever before to finding a way forward.

We have listened very carefully to those who fear that any new bodies will have a disproportionate focus on the State and the security forces, and others who fear they might not be independent enough.

So we would write into legislation in the clearest terms the requirement that these bodies are under an obligation to carry out their functions in ways that are fair, equitable, balanced, proportionate and transparent.

We have sought to remove the politics from sensitive appointments - for example the director of the Historical Investigations Unit.

And, crucially, any legislation we bring forward will make absolutely clear that there will be no amnesties or immunity from prosecution.

This Government believes in the rule of law - and we will not countenance amnesties.

And although the cross party talks did not result in sufficient consensus to enable legislation to be introduced, we did establish common ground between the participants on a significant number of important questions.

The most difficult outstanding issue relates to how the Government fulfils its duty to protect national security.

I accept that for some this is a loaded term.

But what it means in practice is the Government’s duty to protect its citizens from harm.

As the text of Stormont House Agreement recognises, it is the Government’s duty to keep people safe and secure, and to ensure no individuals are put at risk.

All the participants accept that this vital responsibility must be upheld.

The remaining issue is how best to do so, and how any necessary decisions can be reviewed and appealed.

National security is not an open-ended concept which can be used to suppress information about whatever actions the State does not want to see the light of day.

In fact, as I have said, over recent years the State and its security forces have already disclosed several thousand of documents on Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

During the talks, I listened carefully to those who were worried that the UK government might misuse its powers relating to national security.

And we agreed that the Government and its agencies would give full disclosure of all relevant documents to the HIU without any redactions - that is everything - all we have which relates to the cases HIU will investigate.

The dispute is not about whether the HIU will have access to all the information it needs, It will.

The dispute is about onward disclosure from the HIU.

And it is an inescapable fact that there is information which would put lives at risk if it were put into the public domain.

There are notorious examples of where people accused of being informants have been hunted down and murdered.

I do not want to be explaining to inquests in years to come why I failed to protect the information which led to more such tragedies in the future.

And there are techniques and capabilities available to our security services that if known would be of value to terrorists.

That’s not just violent dissidents in Northern Ireland, but also Islamist terrorists who want to attack our whole way of life.

No responsible government could allow this to happen, and we must retain the power to prevent it.

This has led some to assume that the Government will be constantly seeking to block the onward disclosure by the HIU of information to victims’ families and the public.

This is simply not the case.

The fact that disclosure of information may be embarrassing or difficult is not a justification to withholding it and no one is suggesting that it should be.

In order to offer re-assurance we stretched ourselves during the talks and offered a significant compromise.

I was able to agree with Government colleagues that where material or information is withheld on national security grounds, families would be told this.

And then they or the HIU director would be given an automatic right to challenge it in the High Court.

We believe this to be both fair and reasonable.

Anyone who doubts the independence of the High Court should consider the regularity with which it rules against the UK government.

So I would like to conclude my speech on a note of optimism.

I do not believe that the remaining differences which exist in relation to establishing the new legacy bodies are insurmountable.

That is why I am determined to do all I can to resolve them as soon as possible.

We owe victims and survivors nothing less.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that the new structures will be perfect, or that they will provide all of the answers to all of the questions posed by victims and survivors.

Unfortunately there is no set of proposals which could ever deliver that or make up for even a fraction of the pain and loss suffered over the thirty years of the Troubles.

But I am confident that they will be a significant improvement on what we have now.

For that reason I believe that they are worth pursuing - as part of our commitment to do more for victims and survivors, and as part of our broader commitment . As a One Nation government dedicated to bringing our country together, to build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and create a brighter, more secure future for everyone who lives here.