Baroness Smith on Bloody Sunday

“My Lords, first, I put on record how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for giving us the opportunity for today’s debate, which, after the contributions we have heard, has been extremely worth while. I thank my noble friend Lady Royall for her comments earlier, with which I associate myself. I join others in praising the commitment and diligence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, and his team. This was clearly a highly complex, controversial and difficult inquiry, and the final report and the Government’s response do both him and the Government great credit.

Many of your Lordships have quoted from the report. He makes it clear that none of the 13 people who were killed or those who were injured posed a threat of causing death or serious injury on the day now known as Bloody Sunday. His conclusion regarding what happened on that day is the quote that most affected me. He said:

“What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland”.

It was not just a catastrophe for some people of Northern Ireland, for one community or another; it was clearly a catastrophe for the whole of Northern Ireland and beyond. Although in 1972 alone 500 lost their lives, in over 30 years more than 3,500 were killed and many more were wounded. It just was not possible for people to get on with their lives and put behind them the violent political war around them; it touched every part of society.

The effects of those years never leave those who lived through them. We are all aware of the obvious impact, but a small example, not a dramatic one, was brought home to me shortly after I was made a Minister for Northern Ireland in 2001. That was a time, as noble Lords may recall, when the Assembly was suspended, at the time of what became known as Stormontgate. My noble friend Lady Armstrong informed me that I was going there as a Minister, she said for a matter of weeks or possibly a few months. I remained there for three and a half years. While I was on my first duty weekend, Belfast was hit by a bomb scare. My recollection is that the bomb was real but for some reason it did not properly detonate, so there were no injuries, but it created total chaos and traffic congestion all through Belfast on a Friday afternoon. Roads were closed, and people could not get home or into events in the city in the evening. That night at a concert at the Waterfront Hall, it was obviously the main topic of conversation. The comment that stayed with me was from a woman of about the age that I am now. She was really quite upset and said, “I’d forgotten. This is what it was like every single day, and today has brought it all back”. She went on to tell me that she had sent her children across to England to get them out of Northern Ireland. She was not the only one. There were so many young people, crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, who left their homes. Many of them never returned. In so many ways, the euphemistically named Troubles were a catastrophe for the whole of Northern Ireland.

In looking at the issues that the Saville report raises and the wider issue of how we deal with the past, I should like to use my time in this debate to speak as a former victims Minister for Northern Ireland, in which I followed in the distinguished footsteps of my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton. In that role I visited and spoke with many individuals and groups across the political divide who had lost loved ones, and with others who had been injured and suffered themselves. For very different reasons, they all described themselves as victims or survivors of the Troubles. It is very difficult for us in other parts of the UK to really and truly appreciate the depth and impact of these emotions. When so many people in the community have been affected and had to live with the suffering day in and day out, that collective experience can offer support. It can, however, also make it far harder to bear. There is an incredible network of support groups for victims and survivors. Some are for just one section of the community, whereas others are cross-community; some offer counselling and some offer health treatments. They all, however, offer comfort.

Among the organisations that had an impact on and impressed me was one called CALMS, in Londonderry, or Derry, where I met two young women from very different backgrounds. One had lost her brother, who had been in the IRA, while the other-who had become her friend-was from a Protestant background; I think it was her father who had been killed. Both of them and their families had suffered, but they had been prepared to talk to each other and share their grief. They wanted to try to understand something from the experience. They admitted that it was difficult. Neither felt completely at ease in each other’s community, but they had challenged each other’s misconceptions about who they were and what they believed in, with amazing results. Others found it far harder to mix in that way but nevertheless found comfort in being able to relax with others who had been affected as they had, and who understood.

I was hugely impressed by a group of RUC widows that I met-women who, when their husbands died, were left with small children and had to raise families on their own, with very little support. They had never been thanked or praised for what they had achieved for their families. I also recall visiting Ballymurphy women’s centre in west Belfast, which my noble friend referred to a moment ago. At that time there were few ministerial visits to the area and a heavy police presence. Outside the centre, there was a peaceful but clearly highly emotional demonstration for the 11 people killed in 1971, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, described. They held up photographs of their loved ones who had been killed. They just wanted to know why this was allowed to happen and how it could have happened. They just wanted answers.

Many people have struggled to make sense of the information they have received about the death of their loved one. I met so many people who had painstakingly tried to piece together information from different sources to try to get to the truth. Others just wanted the opportunity to tell the story of how they had been affected without the fear of others’ judgment. I think I understand the Government’s position on not having any new enquiries but I do not yet understand what will replace them. The Minister has referred to the work of the HET and the police ombudsman. However, we can never use those to replace a mechanism for getting to the truth, or underestimate the need to know the truth. That is not to say that it is easy, because it is not. It is often difficult and often painful and it is always complex. However, it is surely the right thing to do.

The extremely impressive report by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and Denis Bradley faced some criticism when the Consultative Group on the Past, which they jointly chaired, tried to address how Northern Ireland can deal with its past. Some of the proposals were more acceptable than others to the majority, but the group’s work was impressive and comprehensive and tried to address not only the complexities but the pain. It advised against public inquiries but considered that an historical cases review body-a legacy commission-could be part of the way forward. So I know that there are different views on this issue. Some want an independent national committee or a truth commission, while for others it is more personal. It is clear, though, that doing nothing about the past is not an option, and where collusion is suspected it is all the more important.

I appreciate the arguments about the cost of inquiries or the alternatives; surely there is not a single person in Northern Ireland who supports the inquiries who could not think of other ways to spend that money, such as on creating jobs or on building new schools. We have also heard about the need for hip replacements. However, it is the Troubles that have exacted such a high price in both financial and human cost that it is probably immeasurable. That creates a duty to try to take some action to deal with the issues that have been raised today.

I am not aware that anyone is asking for any other Saville-type open-ended inquiries. People are asking for a mechanism that allows independent investigation and an apology where appropriate, and that is essential.

In looking to the future, we cannot see political issues in isolation. We have to recognise the current economic climate and its impact on the political. During those 30 years or so, Northern Ireland did not suffer just physically and emotionally, it also suffered economically. Today’s report from PricewaterhouseCoopers makes worrying reading. It reports that 20,000 jobs could be lost under the public spending cuts, which would have a knock-on effect of 16,000 job losses in the private sector. Will the Minister press on the Government the need to consider seriously the impact of any public expenditure cuts in Northern Ireland? For reasons that have been discussed today, there has been a greater emphasis and dependence there on the public sector, which provides around 30 per cent of the jobs in the economy. Who other than the Government would invest in Northern Ireland after Bloody Sunday?

The devolved Administration are committed, and actively seeking, to bring in new private investment and create a greater proportion of private sector jobs. To succeed in that, though, they need the political stability to earn and maintain the confidence of private investors. If cuts are made too deeply and quickly, that will impact on the economic-and therefore the political-stability of Northern Ireland, and that hard fought-for private sector investment will just melt away. Political and economic stability are related, and it would be illogical and wrong for the Government to work to preserve one while undermining the other.

In conclusion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, and his team have done more than present an exceptional report on Bloody Sunday; they have reinvigorated the quest for truth. Governments, in setting up the inquiry and in the way that they have responded, have helped to create confidence in the process of truth and investigation. The challenge now is to ensure that everything possible is done to maintain economic and political stability for the whole of the community, and that the way forward meets the needs of the future and does not ignore, but properly deals with, the issues of the past.

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