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Northern Ireland's Leaders Still Can't Agree On One Big Issue: How To Deal With The Past

After 10 weeks of wrangling, the Stormont assembly has been saved by a new deal between the parties, but they've kicked "legacy issues" into the long grass.

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Northern Ireland's two biggest parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Féin, announced on Tuesday that they had come to a new agreement to save the power-sharing assembly at Stormont from collapse.

Paul Faith / AFP / Getty Images

The Stormont parliament buildings, the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly.

In an agreement titled "A Fresh Start", the two parties laid out how they would deal with issues such as welfare reform, which has yet to be implemented in Northern Ireland, and contentious parades – a huge issue as the Orange Order stages countrywide marches every year on 12 July.

Yet there remains one huge issue they are unable to agree on, and which has consistently destabilised all Northern Ireland's previous fresh starts since the Good Friday Agreement: how to deal with the past.

More than 3,000 people were killed during Northern Ireland's 30-year war, known as the Troubles. The relatives of the dead have continued to demand justice, never giving up hope that there will be prosecutions for the murders of their loved ones. It's a partisan issue in NI that frequently divides the parties.

For example, the DUP's members would be against prosecuting the Bloody Sunday soldiers, while Sinn Féin's would be for it. Equally, Sinn Féin does not want the former IRA volunteers within its own party to be prosecuted.

Complicating all this is the lack of a clear definition of who qualifies as a "victim". Does an IRA or UVF volunteer who died on "active service" – i.e. while planting a bomb or en route to shooting someone – meet the criteria? Their families say yes; their victims say no.

And then there's the residual bitterness left by the conflict. Across the divide, many voters view the lives lost in their community as tragedies but the lives lost in the other community as collateral damage. It's a classic case of "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter".

It makes consensus on how to deal with the past a political landmine for politicians. The victims themselves are divided on how best to approach the issue: Some are in favour of an amnesty, others want to see their loved ones' killers do jail time. The biggest issue stalling movement, however, is that the NI secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, will be able to veto the contents of any report by the new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) on grounds of national security.

The HIU is the new unit being set up to investigate Troubles-related murders. Families engaging with the body will receive a report summarising what's known about their loved one's murder, similar to how the HIU's predecessor, the Historical Enquiries Team, worked. Villiers' veto power is troubling for a number of reasons – mainly for families whose loved ones were killed by British state agents or where collusion is suspected.

Many murders during the Troubles were carried out by double agents, members of paramilitary groups who were secretly working for British intelligence as informers. Director of public prosecutions Barra McGrory recently announced he'd instructed the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to launch an investigation into British agent and IRA member Freddie Scappaticci, reviewing up to 20 murders.

With regards to collusion, David Cameron admitted in 2012 that British security services and police had colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane. However, Finucane is believed to have been just one of many such victims.

And this is what makes Villiers' veto a difficult pill to swallow for NI's political parties. If an investigation were to be carried into Pat Finucane's murder or a murder carried out by Scappaticci, for example, there's a good chance the families of the victims would never see the HIU's findings.

It's hard to see how this impasse is going to be resolved. Sinn Féin especially cannot be seen to give in to the British government on the issue, as most victims of collusion came from the republican/nationalist community they represent. Unionist victims are also unhappy with the veto, meaning there's a cross-community lobby of dissent.

And no party wants to be the one seen as "selling out" victims, especially with assembly elections approaching next year; the tales of horror from the Troubles are so heart-rending that any move against victims' interests results in extremely bad PR. Shelving the issue of the past while ushering ministers back to their seats in the executive could sow the seeds for yet another stalemate.

Contact Lyra McKee at None.

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