§ The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made the following Written Ministerial Statement:
The troubles have left their mark on the people of Northern Ireland and all those affected by the conflict. Almost 4000 lives were lost, each one an individual loved and mourned by family and friends. And the human cost extends beyond these victims, to their families and friends, to all those who survived their ordeals, and to the wider community which struggles still to heal the divisions that were created and became entrenched.
The pain of loss is still keenly felt by those who lost loved ones. The Government cannot hope to change that. But there is a sense in which we in Northern Ireland need to come to terms with what has happened over the past 35 years: to tackle the legacy in a way that respects the suffering and loss that has been experienced; but which also allows the community as a whole to build a future that is not overshadowed by the events of the past.
Last spring, the Prime Minister said that he hoped that the Government could find a way to deal with Northern Ireland's past. Since then I have been reflecting on how we might begin this process. I have visited South Africa, to see at first hand how a very different society has sought to address its own particular legacy. I have talked privately to experts and opinion formers to hear their views. And in parallel with that process the Minister for Victims, Angela Smith, has been engaged in a detailed consultation with groups representing victims and survivors of the troubles on the future shape of services to meet their needs. I have drawn a number of lessons from these experiences.
My view remains that Northern Ireland needs its own tailored approach to dealing with the past. That is not to say that we cannot learn from the experiences of other societies that have faced a difficult and turbulent period in their recent history. But any process for dealing with Northern Ireland's past will require an approach that acknowledges and respects its unique features as well as its similarities to situations elsewhere.
I also believe that the scope and aims of any process need to be widely understood and agreed, and must be capable of commanding support and credibility right across the community. Government have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that an appropriate mechanism is found for dealing with the past to the satisfaction of all sections of the community. But I recognise too that, for some, the Government's role in past events is itself seen as an issue; and it is hard for some sections of the community to see us as a genuinely 8WS neutral party. Neither do the Government have a monopoly on wisdom, and I recognise the major contribution that many practitioners and other bodies are already making in this field.
These considerations have led me to conclude that any process for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland cannot be designed in isolation, or imposed by government. There will need to be broadly-based consultation that allows individuals and groups across the community to put their views on what form any process might take. And that consultation process itself will need broad cross-community support if the ideas it generates are to be constructively received.
In the light of recent events, I am clear that now is not the right moment to launch such a broadly-based consultation process. And I think that we need to be realistic about what can be achieved in advance of a political settlement. But that is not to say that nothing can be done or that political considerations should forever stand in the way of meaningful progress. There are important steps that the Government can take now to address issues that are at the heart of how we can all deal with Northern Ireland's difficult legacy.
I am therefore announcing today that the Government intend to put in place a new Victims' and Survivors' Commissioner. I believe that this is necessary both to ensure a real focus on the needs of victims and survivors of the troubles in Northern Ireland and to ensure that their voices continue to be heard and respected. So I am publishing alongside this announcement a consultation paper on the future of victims' and survivors' services for those victims, which includes the Government's initial proposals for the commissioner's detailed remit. The document sets out proposals for a comprehensive approach to the provision of services, with the commissioner playing a pivotal role in ensuring effective service delivery and in promoting the interests of all those who have suffered as a result of Northern Ireland's troubled past. One of the commissioner's responsibilities will be to take forward the establishment of the Victims' and Survivors' Forum envisaged in the Joint Declaration to represent their views in a structured way. That consultation will continue until the end of June this year.
For many victims and survivors, the possibility of coming to terms with what has happened in the past is made more remote because there remain significant unanswered questions, for example about the fate of their loved ones. For many families, the difficulty of not knowing certain details surrounding their loved one's death continues to be a significant issue many years on. The Government recognise that there is a need to address in a systematic way all of the unresolved deaths in Northern Ireland's recent troubled past. As I announced last September, I have been in discussions with the Chief Constable about how the groundbreaking work of the Serious Crime Review Team (SCRT) within the Police Service of Northern Ireland might be expanded to help meet this need. I hope that both we and the PSNI will soon be in a position to say more about the next steps on this.9WS
We need to consider carefully and collectively how best to deal sensitively with the needs and expectations of all sections of the community in dealing with the legacy of the past. The creation of a Victims' and Survivors' Commissioner is intended as a major contribution to that work. But it does not mark the end either of the process or the Government's contribution to it.