Northern Ireland in Transition: The Role of Justice

By Christian, Mailhes | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Northern Ireland in Transition: The Role of Justice


Christian, Mailhes, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Abstract: All post-conflict societies switching to constitutional liberal democracies have to deal with their past through transitional justice mechanisms that offer to hear the victims, try the perpetrators of all types of abuses, introduce peace and reconciliation schemes. It is time for state and non-state organs to account for past crimes. Several countries have successfully tested such mechanisms. Northern Ireland is the ideal ground for transitional justice to operate but it dispels foreign tailor-made models. However, a number of major reforms and projects have addressed sensitive issues in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. Two key institutions, the police and the criminal justice system, whose responsibility in the conflict was undeniable, have been reformed. Law and lawyers are concerned with these changes and the introduction of a Human Rights culture in Northern Ireland. A clear break with the past must be achieved for transitional justice mechanisms to work successfully.

Key Words: Criminal Justice system, Emergency Legislation, Human Rights, Northern Ireland, Peace Process, Good Friday Agreement, PSNI, Restorative justice, Transitional Justice, Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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After a period of brutal conflict, any state must move on from the violence and recover from its wounds and trauma. To do so, post-conflict countries will often look back to identify the root causes of the violence, provide justice for victims and generate ways to prevent future human rights abuses. This is often a difficult transition that involves a wide range of actors and may take years to accomplish.

Northern Ireland has undergone decades of protracted armed internal conflict, unresolved by military and security policies, draconian permanent emergency legislation or attempts at political normalisation. However, political normalisation became possible in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement which opened an era of transition. The document therefore offers a framework for transition so that such a deeply divided society may proceed towards re-establishing itself. Since then, in spite of its current institutional deadlock, Northern Ireland has been undergoing a dynamic process to deal with its past. A number of reforms in the most sensitive areas of policing and criminal justice have been launched by the Agreement.

The Agreement was an attempt at bringing together apparently irreconcilable claims from Northern Ireland's political parties in order to envisage a new start and a common future for all citizens. However, after decades of violent entrenched conflict and thousands of victims, a number of conflict-related issues with important legal dimensions remain to be addressed.

In all states which have switched from authoritarian regimes or conflict-riven societies to constitutional liberal democracies, some form of transitional instruments has been put in place. It has necessarily required the intervention of legal mechanisms offering common neutral ground to respond to past conflicts. Since the 1980s, a number of states --following civil war, military dictatorships or communist regimes-- have had to adopt a number of legal instruments to address the past which were part of a global scheme known as transitional justice. The aim is to hear victims' and survivors' demands for justice and reparations, bring redress for past wrongs, restore peace and confidence and ideally reconcile former enemies. Thus transitional justice is the process by which nations which have been submitted to a period of brutal conflict address past abuses with a view to reforming their society through institutional change. In most conflicts, gross abuses of human rights are committed, mostly against the most vulnerable, and it is essential that abuses should be confronted, otherwise the ideology behind past abuses may remain unchecked. That is why transitional states find it important to incorporate a number of different transitional justice mechanisms. …

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