Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Dealing with wounds of the past

By Vincent Kearney
BBC Home affairs correspondent

Denis Bradley and Lord Eames hoped their report would help heal divisions and help Northern Ireland deal with the dark shadow of the past that still scars many lives.

Lord Eames and Denis Bradley
The group is co-chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley

The view of the Consultative Group on the Past is set out in the report, when it states that "buried memories fester in the unconscious minds of communities in conflict, only to emerge later in even more distorted and virulent forms to poison minds and relationships".

But even before the report was published on Wednesday, their hopes that it would provide the foundation for dealing with the past appeared to have been dashed.

At the core of the consultative group's approach is the belief that there should be no hierarchy of victims, that everyone should be treated in the same way.

That was the rationale for the proposal that the families of all those killed during the troubles should receive a one-off "recognition payment" of 12,000.

The families of police officers and soldiers killed by the IRA would be treated in exactly the same way as the relatives of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, even those who died while trying to kill others.

If the recommendation is accepted by the government, the total cost would be an estimated 40m.

There has been a barrage of criticism since news of that recommendation emerged at the weekend.

Unionist politicians and some victims campaigners have denounced the plan as an insult and a betrayal.

The DUP has said it will oppose any attempt to suggest an equivalence between the actions of paramilitaries and the security forces.

The group has hit back.

Denis Bradley says the payments are not intended as compensation or financial reward, but instead as a small gesture by society to acknowledge the grief of families left devastated by the last 40 years.

It also questions the motivation of some of the critics.

The report says the group is concerned that victims and survivors "can be politicised to the point of being used to achieve political ends and that some groups are little more than mini political parties".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown will have to decide whether to provide the cash

Denis Bradley and Lord Eames stress that the 190-page report, the result of 18 months of consultation, contains more than 30 recommendations, and say it requires more than an instant response.

The other proposals include the creation of a five-year legacy commission, appointed by the British and Irish governments, to deal with all aspects of the past.

The idea is that this would be a final, comprehensive review and that when its remit ends, the door would finally be closed on the past.

This commission would include a Reconciliation Forum tasked with tackling issues like sectarianism, the provision of health care to those suffering from trauma, and how best to remember the past and deal with victims and survivors.

An investigations branch would take over the work and budget of the Historical Enquiries Team and the part of the Police Ombudsman's office that investigates historical incidents.

It would review cases and prosecute offenders if there was sufficient evidence to do so.

There would also be an information recovery process.

If families of victims agreed and were willing to waive the possibility of prosecutions, this process would use a series of mediators to attempt to retrieve information from paramilitary organisations and the security forces about the circumstances surrounding individual murders.

Any statement given to the commission would have immunity and could not be used to bring a prosecution.

But there would not be a general amnesty and any evidence from other sources could be used to bring individuals to court.

Another unit would conduct what are called "thematic examinations", which could investigate allegations of collusion, which the group says have not been properly dealt with, and allegations that the IRA engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in border areas.

As expected, the report also recommends no more public inquiries, but the ongoing inquiries into the events of Bloody Sunday and the murders of Rosemary Nelson, Robert Hamill and Billy Wright should continue.

In terms of remembering the past, the group says there should be an annual Day of Reflection and Reconciliation on 21 June to remember those killed.

It says there is no agreement on a shared memorial, but that this issue should be kept under consideration.

The group also says the legacy commission should challenge the people of Northern Ireland, including political parties and paramilitary groups, "to sign a declaration to the effect that they will never again kill or injure others on political grounds".

Despite the criticism of the past few days, Denis Bradley and Lord Eames believe their proposals offer the best possible solution to dealing with the past, and have ruled out withdrawing the recommended 12,000 recognition payment to make it more palatable.

The reality is that they may not have a choice as their recommendations will require political consensus if they are to be implemented.

But even if, and it is a huge if, political agreement can be reached, it is far from certain that the money needed will be available.

According to the consultative group's own figures, the total cost would be 300m.

The Irish government would be asked to make "a significant contribution", but the majority of the financial burden will fall on the British government.

Given that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing a recession that seems to be worsening by the week, he may not consider money spent on dealing with Northern Ireland's past as money well spent.

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