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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Moving things along....

It is interesting to watch the shifting place of "accountability" in the negotiations for an agreement to end the suspension of the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Taking a step back from the immediate situation and viewing the current proposals in historical perspective, what we see is that the salient, deal-breaking demands for accountability have shifted from a focus on the past to an emphasis on the future.

Speculating on what solutions are being considered in this latest round of negotiations is just that -- speculation. But among the issues of accountability that have been stressed by the DUP is reflected in its stand of victims of the Troubles-era violence. From their perspective, discussions about victims must highlight those who suffered as a result of IRA actions, and the party's platform seems adamant that the rights of those individuals and families be given priority and special consideration and not be merged into some general pool of "victims of the Troubles." This is reflected in calls for investigations and prosecutions into unsolved acts of violence (the DUP figure is 2000, although media reports suggest the number is closer to 3000), with an accompanying pullback to the promise of a general amnesty. This is also stressed in their stand on reparations to victims of the Troubles, taking a strong position against programs that are as (or more) likely (in their estimation) to provide compensation to "rehabilitate terrorists."

On the nationalist side, there is a no less adamant stance on dealing with past injustices, but the view of legitimate victimization claims is quite different from the DUP’s. Sinn Fein's position is expressed in a 1995 document in which it declares that "Parity of esteem must extend to all the victims and their communities. To say that there have been victims on all sides is not some trite piece of propaganda but a recognition of reality. Republicans recognise that there have been victims on all sides - victims of British forces as well as British soldiers and RUC members, nationalists as well as unionists." The SDLP accepts a broad definition of victimhood, and uncritically takes note of a position expressed by in one official report that avoided the term "victim" altogether and instead spoke of those "affected by the civil unrest."

Indicaitons are that the emerging agreement will deal with these different demands for accountability for past injustices, at least in regard to compensation. The talk of a £1 billion funding package for the new agreement is probably aimed at addressing the reparation issue, and there is ongoing talk about funding more investigations as well as establishing a truth and reconciliation process.

But what seems increasingly clear is that these “hot button” and very emotional issues related to accountability for past injustices have been effectively moved to the background (at least for the moment) in order to make room for discussions about accountability for the future actions of a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive.

Under the current arrangements, the appointments of the dozen or so ministerial posts are subject to individual negotiation (once the First and Deputy First Ministers are selected) within the complex political matrix of Northern Ireland's Assembly -- a system I am still trying to figure out (this is one subject that is not helped by a Google search). What is clear is that some form of collective vote on a "ministerial package" (similar to the EU Commission appointments approach -- which has been making headlines in recent weeks) is on the negotiating table, with the expressed intent of supposedly given the Assembly greater leverage over the government.

Whatever the details, it is interesting to see how a shift in focus on accountability issues seems to be playing a key role in moving the process along….

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