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Arlene Foster: Status quo for investigating past is totally unacceptable

By Arlene Foster ·

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Attending the Addressing The Legacy Of Northern Ireland’s Past conference last month were (from left) Raymond McCord, Tracey Coulter, Michael Monaghan, Michael Gallagher, Cat Wilkinson and Nicola McGowan

The extension of the Northern Ireland Office's consultation, Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past, is welcome and will increase the number of people who can respond.

The Government should make use of the additional period to outline more proactively the content of the proposals.

The Democratic Unionist Party has engaged extensively with victims and the wider public over recent months, and found consideration of the Government's document tending to be instilled with ongoing dissatisfaction at the state of affairs following a catalogue of shameful actions over the last two decades.

The failures of the Belfast Agreement, including the early release of terrorist prisoners, caused immense hurt to victims.

This was followed by the Government formally abandoning attempting to extradite IRA prison escapees, efforts to grant a terrorist amnesty at Westminster and then comfort letters for those on the run.

The clearest example of that same unfairness today remains the definition of a victim.

We have met with a number of individual victims and several groups representing victims' organisations during the course of the consultation, and the victim definition was raised with us as their key issue almost universally by those we engaged with.

The 2006 definition of a victim and survivor is indefensible. There is a clear distinction in law between a terrorist perpetrator and their innocent victim, and to equate the two is morally untenable. A perpetrator of an unlawful act cannot at the same time be a victim of the act they have perpetrated.

Extremely powerful testimony at our meetings and discussions further reinforced the depth and rawness of hurt and insult victims' families feel at their loved one being placed in the same category as terrorist perpetrators.

The DUP has previously tabled legislative proposals to change the definition of a victim.

The Government should bring forward plans now for a new UK-wide definition of a victim with a clear distinction between perpetrator and victim. We believe this could improve the existing climate and context and offer the best prospect of new legacy bodies proving successful.

It is important we tackle the ever-growing promotion of a state vs non-state tale of the 'Troubles' which ignores that the overwhelming view of all sections of the community, including governments, politics, civil society and churches, was that the violence was morally unacceptable.

Setting the terrorist campaigns in proper context is essential. One way to assist in this could be through the Government taking forward the development of an authoritative, evidence-based account of the period. This is an area in which my DUP colleagues and I have been carrying out some work over recent months, and will consult more widely on shortly.

The current definition of a victim and past government actions are overshadowing progress made in the Stormont House talks, such as establishing in law a credible definition of collusion and unburdening the Police Ombudsman's Office of its legacy role, as well as the DUP's key objective of securing full criminal investigations for all outstanding cases.

The status quo for investigating the past is totally unacceptable. There is a disproportionate focus on the activities of the armed forces and police. This includes the work of the Legacy Investigation Branch of the PSNI, the various ongoing inquiries, the Police Ombudsman, the Public Prosecution Service and the so-called legacy inquests.

While little progress has been made in bringing to justice the terrorist organisations responsible for 90% of the deaths, hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money and innumerable hours of police time have been devoted to pursuing investigations against veterans of our armed forces and retired police officers.

The PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch devotes a wholly disproportionate level of its resources to investigating the small number of killings linked to the security forces and an inadequate amount to the thousands of unsolved terrorist murders.

The status quo is not an option. As things currently stand, innocent victims are the only group not seeing some level of progress on investigations.

Arlene Foster is a former First Minister and leader of the DUP

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Attending the Addressing The Legacy Of Northern Ireland’s Past conference last month were (from left) Raymond McCord, Tracey Coulter, Michael Monaghan, Michael Gallagher, Cat Wilkinson and Nicola McGowan