Leaders talk justice for Northern Ireland victims of violence

Belfast, Northern Ireland at night. TS Drown via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In a hearing on Capitol Hill, human rights experts and survivors of decades of violence and civil unrest in Northern Ireland discussed the need for justice and accountability for victims and society at large.

“The passage of time will not by itself heal Northern Ireland's society or make it more normal or bring it together,” said The Honorable Richard N. Haass, chair of the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“It is up to the leaders of Northern Ireland to make politics work toward the objective of completing the peace process.”

Haass made his comments March 11 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittees on human rights and Europe. The event dealt with steps Northern Ireland can take to address the violence that throughout Northern Ireland in a time called “The Troubles.”

This period of upheaval occurred from the 1960s through the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998 between groups that wished to maintain British sovereignty over Northern Ireland and those who wished to join a united Ireland.

Eugene Devlin recounted his injuries as a victim of a shooting as an example of the experiences the Northern Irish justice system still needs to address.

While coming back from a high school dance in 1972, Devlin said that his friend and his cab was followed by a car, whose passengers proceeded to shoot at Devlin and his friend when they got out of the cab to go home. Devlin was shot in the arm by a potentially-deadly bullet, and still has “physical reminders of that wound, and every day, carry medication as a consequence.”

Devlin said that he later learned that “ these shootings were the clandestine acts of a secret terrorist force, carefully selected from the British Army” called the “Military Reaction Force.”

“It was a shock that someone who didn’t know me would try to kill me – they nearly did – but I am sure that they didn’t care if I died,” he said. “These shootings were unjustified, and remain unjustifiable.”

Devlin added that “the most disturbing thing” about the situation was that the army, which was originally brought to the country “to restore order,” “had become transformed into an army of occupation, with elements of that army operating outside even their own law and regulations.”

Julia Hall, an expert on Criminal Justice and Counter-Terrorism in Europe for Amnesty International said that while the peace agreements between the two sides of the conflict was a “turning point in the history of Norther Ireland,” the “ongoing failure to deal with Northern Ireland’s shared, but difficult past has had consequences for both individuals and society-at-large.”

Many families who lost relatives on both sides of the conflict, as well as society at large “are still searching for the truth and for justice and for accountability.”
    
“The failure to grapple with the legacy of the past has created fertile ground for continued division and mistrust, undermining progress towards a shared future,” she explained.

Hall suggested that Northern Ireland make steps to implement a “victim-focused” system “to address the past in a comprehensive manner,” which would look at individual cases and seek to bring those responsible for violence “to justice” and provide “full reparation for victims.”

Haass urged Irish leaders to “be prepared to take and make precisely this case to their constituents and the broader public,” especially to their own supporters.

He acknowledged that while “the society has come a long way from where it was two decades ago,” there is still much work to be done.

“The stakes are great,” he said. “Largely depending upon what they choose to do, the future of Northern Ireland will either be that of a vicious circle or a virtuous one.”


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