Alliance Councillor Geraldine Rice has slammed Women’s Coalition leader Monica McWilliams for failing to back an Assembly motion calling for the Government’s proposed amnesty for terrorists ‘on the run’ only to proceed if paramilitary exiles can return safely to Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, the Assembly failed to pass an Alliance motion calling for those forced from Northern Ireland to be allowed home, should the Government proceed with what Cllr Rice described as “an ill-advised general amnesty for terrorists”.
Cllr Rice said: “Ms McWilliams contribution to the debate was nonsensical, vitriolic and unhelpful to the victims of paramilitary violence. Most people can see the hypocrisy and unfairness of allowing dangerous fugitives back into the country, while their gun-toting friends continue to force people out of it.”
“If an amnesty were conditional upon allowing exiles back, it would bring a great deal of public confidence back to a process where there is a perception that it is tipped in favour of those who put Northern Ireland through 30 years of suffering.”
“This is a straightforward human rights issue – and for those parties which claim to stand up for human rights, I would say it is now time to live up to that claim.”
“The Government must also bear its share of responsibility for cooking up this ill thought out plan behind closed doors at Weston Park last year without even consulting other parties. Now they intend to bring legislation before the Commons next month – and no-one has had sight of it yet.”
“Given the Government’s legislative record when it comes to the peace process – policing legislation is also to be changed shortly – it is incredible that Ms McWilliams is prepared to accept the situation unquestioningly.”
“While Monica McWilliams shouts from the sidelines, accepting that exiling will continue, Alliance will continue its fight to bring those forced out by paramilitaries back to Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that some will not be joining with us on this important human rights issue, but this is an issue which I believe people feel strongly about.”
“If we are to truly move forward into a united, stable and peaceful society, it is vital that we establish that human rights are not just for one side or the other, but for every single person in Northern Ireland. If we are to have a just society, it must be justice for all.”
My party is concerned that the Alliance Party’s motion is an attempt to simplify, unhelpfully, the complicated issue of outstanding prosecutions for offences committed before 1998. The Alliance Party wants to deal with the matter legally, but it is not solely a legal issue. It wants to link the issue to exiles but not to the wider context of security, law and order, political stability and the need for confidence building in a community that sorely requires it.
No matter how much we might want to put behind us the issues of outstanding prosecutions, exiles and continuing paramilitary and organised crime, they cannot be dealt with by a single wave of the legislative wand. There is no magic wand, as those who were involved in the negotiations know. It requires negotiation, political will, strong leadership and hard work on all sides. To assume that the issue lies at the door of the Government or the courts is to focus on one aspect only. That assumption betrays a sore misunderstanding of the nature of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.
To demand – and it is a simple and foolish demand – that some of the “on the runs” should simply surrender themselves, approach the courts, admit their guilt, be sentenced and then released at the pleasure of the courts, is to live in fantasy land. We should know by now how unhelpful it is to tie issues together. That merely blocks progress on outstanding issues until somebody’s demands are met.
I say to those who would prevent any resolution for those on the run until exiles are returned home, and to those who refuse to discuss the exiles issue until reforms of policing are introduced, that work must be allowed to continue in parallel on all those difficult issues. That has been the case to date, and it is why we have driven the process forward step by step, dealing with the issues in parallel, without making one demand in return for another.
We would have had no progress on policing, decommissioning, or the devolved Government that we now have, had we not adopted that approach, yet the Alliance Party is attempting to place another set of chains on the peace process. The origins of the proposals for those on the run are the Weston Park talks. The proposals were derived from a package of measures, with which not everyone was satisfied, as the First Minister pointed out. However, we should not take the proposals out of context. The agreement contained no explicit provision for those on the run, but those people must be dealt with one day. We must face up to the issue as part of the peace process, as other controversial issues have been faced.
We must deal with the deeds of the past. We recognise the need for truth and accountability, and there must be a proper discussion of the pros and cons of the methods of achieving that. However, this is not the time for that debate. We urge all the parties to get involved in that process. Local groups have begun the process by building on good international practice.
The Women’s Coalition is opposed to the exclusion and the intimidation of people from their homes. We recognise that it is not solely a current problem, it will continue for some time. There is no justification for such a situation in a democratic society. Reforms have been made to provide proper channels to deal with community problems and conflicts. However, as with decommissioning, we call on everyone with influence to use it to end the practice of exiling people. We must focus on practical justice, the justice that results from conflict resolution, which involves not only ending violence, but ending its causes.
The Alliance Party’s suggestion for dealing with people “on the run”, which has no precedent in justice or in international practice, is an assumption that “one size fits all”. It does not, and that concept is simplistic. The SDLP’s amended motion acknowledges the complexity of the issue and offers much more constructive and creative ways to resolve it.