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Northern Ireland Troubles truth commission is opening old wounds

The British government promised a new law to deal with the so-called legacy cases from the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland or the Troubles, in which 3,500 people were killed between 1968 and 1998. Part of the proposal is to set up a Nelson Mandela-style truth and reconciliation process, but as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, many groups are opposing the new legislation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Northern Ireland has been at peace for 23 years. But the legacy of the 30-year long sectarian conflict is still causing pain and anguish.

    The British government has promised a new law to deal with some of the outstanding issues from the so-called "Troubles" in which 3,500 people were killed.

    But as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports…the new legislation may stir up even more trouble.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Britain's veterans are on the offensive, angry that former comrades are being pursued through the courts in their old age. This march through London was in support of 79-year-old Dennis Hutchings facing trial over a fatal shooting in Northern Ireland 47 years ago.

  • Dennis Hutchings:

    We must reject entirely the prosecution of service personnel for actions legitimately taken in the line of duty.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Former Armed Forces Minister Johnny Mercer was sacked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson for claiming the government had betrayed veterans.

  • Johnny Mercer:

    This is the nation's cause, it goes how the nation looks after its veterans that we care about. Enough is enough.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Mercer believes he can campaign more effectively outside government.

  • Johnny Mercer:

    I think successive governments just seem to have some sort of mental block when it comes to our veterans. If you, you know, if you send these guys away and you ask them to serve in the military, you've got to look after them when they come home. And this kind of pursuing them endlessly for years is the bottom of the pit for me.

  • Dennis Hutchings:

    I'm on trial for attempted murder and grievous bodily harm with intent.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hutchings' supporters claim he's being hounded to placate Northern Ireland politicians sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, that fought the British during the conflict.

  • Dennis Hutchings:

    The circumstances were we were doing a large, big operation following up. And there was an incident where I can't talk about it because I've got to go on trial for it. And a young man got killed.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The victim was 27 years old John Pat Cunningham, who had learning difficulties and a fear of men in uniform. He died in what the British army regarded back then as hostile countryside 50 miles south west of Belfast. Cunningham was shot in this field as he ran from a patrol led by Hutchings. Previous investigations have cleared the former soldier.

    The relatives of John Cunningham have declined to be interviewed. And the reason being they don't want to do anything that's going to jeopardize potentially the trial of Dennis Hutchings, which is due to take place later this year. But what they have said in the past is that if Dennis Hutchings is adamant about his innocence, what he should do is come to court and clear his name.

    A new law to deal with so-called legacy cases was promised in this socially distanced parliamentary ceremony when the government's plans for the next legislative session were unveiled in the queen's speech, although details were scarce.

  •  Queen Elizabeth II:

    Measures will be brought forward to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland and address the legacy of the past.

  • Mark Kelly:

    I have no faith in the British army and the British government at the minute when I see what they're trying to do and give amnesty to British soldiers.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Forty years after his sister Carol Anne was hit in the head by a rubber bullet, Mark Kelly is still seeking answers. The 12 year old schoolgirl was playing outside her home. There had been rioting in this neighborhood a few days earlier, but Kelly insists it was peaceful when his sister was fatally wounded.

  • Mark Kelly:

    The first thing we want is a proper investigation. I was standing less than two feet from my sister when she was shot in the head. I was never spoken to by the police.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This archive shows the army using rubber bullets or baton rounds during clashes elsewhere in the province. British soldiers were first deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 to act as peacekeepers between Catholics and Protestants after serious rioting. They were at first welcomed by Catholics. But as trouble intensified, Catholics began to regard them as an occupying force. Although the new legacy legislation hasn't been fully detailed, it's expected to stop future prosecutions.

  • Mark Thompson:

    They're using their sovereignty as a shield to prevent the disclosure of the activities they were engaged in during the conflict.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Mark Thompson runs Relatives for Justice, which supports those bereaved or injured during the so-called Troubles. He has no faith in the British government.

  • Mark Thompson:

    What are you trying to justify when you lock away files about the killing of children by British soldiers for 70 and 100 years? These are the issues that are a burning sore at the heart of this society and within this peace process, justice, accountability and the rule of law.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The IRA have tormented Oliver McVeigh and his family. They abducted and murdered his brother Columba in 1975. McVeigh believes Columba was killed because he saw something he shouldn't have. This family grave bears his name but does not contain his body. Columba's remains have never been found.

  • Oliver McVeigh:

    All we want is to get the body and put him in this grave. It's the Christian thing to do in Ireland and the IRA takes so much respect over their bodies.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    McVeigh doesn't believe stopping prosecutions would help him.

  • Oliver McVeigh:

    See, the IRA are gone now. They're elderly and they're old. But that's still not a good enough excuse to kill someone and bury them in a bog and not be able to find his body. Because if that happened to me, or I done that, I'd remember exactly where it was and I would give it up. Not everybody is coming forward

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In another graveyard, Denise Mullen is also demanding information. She was four years old when her father Dennis, a civil rights activist, was shot dead on his doorstep by Protestant paramilitaries that she alleges were in league with the security forces. The memory of sitting next to her father's corpse has never gone away.

  • Denise Mullen:

    It's not so much flashbacks that I have, but it could be anywhere, anytime, anyplace. And this dreadful smell comes over from me and it totally overpowers where I am at that time. If I'm driving, I have to pull over to the side of the road.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Denise hopes new legislation will help reveal Northern Ireland's dark secrets.

  • Denise Mullen:

    I need to know why my parents were targeted, who decided that about and you know for what reason. Let's pony up here. It's time we had it. My mother is 78 years of age. How long has she got to wait until accountability has been given?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Billy Hutchinson helped negotiate Northern Ireland's peace accord, but as a teenager he was a killer for the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force. He was convicted in 1974 of murdering two young Catholic workmen. We met in Belfast's Shankhill Road, a Protestant stronghold replete with reminders of IRA violence and tirades against its political wing Sinn Fein, now the major republican party in Northern Ireland.

  • Billy Hutchinson:

    Sinn Fein have never done peace and reconciliation. Don't want to do peace and reconciliation. What they want is a British Prime Minister at the Despatch Box saying we are responsible for the troubles in Northern Ireland and we take our responsibility and we apologize to the Irish people. That's what they want.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Some argue the best solution would be a truth and reconciliation commission, emulating post apartheid South Africa. Denis Murray is one of Northern Ireland's most distinguished journalists.

  • Denis Murray:

    I think it's too late for that. And I think the moment has passed. If you take the South African experience as a precedent, they did it immediately after they had their political settlement, as it were, lanced the boil and then moved on. This has festered for so long now, I'm not sure that it's possible to do it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But for Dennis Hutchings and his supporters, the new law may come too late. He's due on trial in September.

  • Dennis Hutchings:

    It's absolutely crazy when you think that we're the only country where this is happening. If you look at America, you look up to your veterans and service people in Germany, France have got the same thing. They have a statute of limitations.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The new law might restore the military covenant promising fair treatment for veterans, but some fear it could rebound in Northern Ireland, exacerbating anger and pain in a country where violence is never far beneath the surface.

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