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Northern Ireland: The Choice

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"We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group."

That's the chilling admission from a former member of the Military Reaction Force, a shadowy undercover unit of the British Army which operated in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. According to the BBC Panorama programme, Britain's Secret Terror Force, the 40-strong unit were responsible for numerous deaths, including of unarmed civilians killed in drive-by shootings and other attacks on the streets of Belfast.

Forty years on, the bereaved family members of those killed, as well others who were seriously injured in the shootings, are still struggling to piece together the truth of what happened - and why. No-one has ever been held accountable for these cold-blooded killings, carried out by the State, of some of its own citizens.

This, tragically, too is the case for countless victims of violence carried out by paramilitary groups on both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland over the three decades of 'Troubles'.

Over 3,500 were killed, more than 40,000 injured, yet in very many cases no-one has ever been held criminally responsible before the law.

Fifteen years after the Belfast / Good Friday peace agreement, thousands of victims are still denied their right to hear the truth and see justice for what happened to them and their loved ones.

Amnesty International's recent report, Northern Ireland: Time to Deal with the Past, established that victims are being badly failed by a flawed and fragmented approach to investigating human rights violations and abuses.

Over the last decade a patchwork of measures, including isolated investigations, have failed to establish the truth about the abuses of the past and left many victims waiting for justice.

The inherent limitations and failings of existing mechanisms for investigating the past have meant that they are unable to provide the full truth about abuses committed by all sides during three decades of political violence. Indeed, we are in the surreal position that it is often left to journalists and families themselves to expose truths left uncovered by official investigations.

It's a mess, and those who are suffering are those who have suffered too much already.

So, how to deal with the past?

Northern Ireland is now facing a choice: forget it or deal with it.

Some, like the region's attorney general, have advocated no further investigations, inquiries or inquests for crimes committed pre-1998, in the hope that human rights abusers might be encouraged to come forward to tell what they know, without fear of prosecution for their crimes. Obviously, this approach would serve well the interests those who pulled the trigger in thousands of killings - as well as those in positions of authority who pulled the strings behind the scenes. However, victims of killings, maiming and torture would be obliged to forgo any remaining chance of justice, as well as what truth might be uncovered by effective investigations.

Others, including Amnesty International, advocate replacing the current piecemeal system with a new, overarching mechanism to investigate all past human rights violations and abuses, whether committed by members of paramilitary groups or the security forces. This, with the right powers and the political buy-in to make it effective, would have a chance to deliver truth and justice for victims and - with a resolution of the past - a much firmer foundation on which to build Northern Ireland's future.

Right now, politicians in Northern Ireland are meeting to discuss how they can move forward on this and other contentious issues. We think this should be their priority.

If you agree, you can join others in asking them to finally deliver truth and justice to those who have been denied it for decades.

Around the Web

Northern Ireland - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Why is Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom? - The Economist

Northern Ireland Office - GOV.UK

Undercover Northern Ireland soldiers accused of killing unarmed civilians

Northern Ireland peace process priest Fr Alec Reid dies