Conflict Erupts Over North Ireland Reconciliation Plan

A new Northern Ireland reconciliation plan that gives the families of slain innocents and killers the same "recognition" payment has provoked fury from Protestants victimized by decades of IRA attacks.

Protestant hard-liners disrupted a Belfast news conference Wednesday called to unveil — and sell to a skeptical public — the 18-month efforts of former Anglican Archbishop Robin Eames and former Catholic priest Denis Bradley.

As they prepared to speak, Protestant hard-liners jumped up from the crowd to hurl insults and condemnations — both at the two men and other audience members linked to the outlawed Irish Republican Army. The hecklers included men and women who lost relatives or were maimed in IRA attacks.

"My brother was an innocent man defending this whole community," said one protester, Hazlett Lynch, whose policeman brother was killed in a 1977 IRA ambush. "When IRA men died while launching cowardly attacks on this community, they actually received justice. The families of those murderers should not be consoled with a single penny today."

Their fury focused on an Eames-Bradley commitment to paying the nearest relatives of all 3,700 dead from the conflict about $17,000 each. The two former churchmen insisted that all families who lost loved ones deserve equal support — but once the anger had ebbed, Eames offered a qualified apology.

"Maybe this gesture, for those outside of our group, is too sudden. Maybe we did make a mistake in our timing. ... If so, we apologize," Eames said.

But he and Bradley stressed that their 192-page report, containing more than 30 proposals, would require citizens to take painful new steps down the road to lasting peace.

The recommendations by the leaders of a British government-appointed panel, called the Consultative Group on the Past, call for Britain to transfer investigative powers to a new panel called the Legacy Commission. Different branches of this group would seek to encourage former IRA members and other militants to come clean about their past; shed light on bitterly disputed killings involving British security forces; and encourage a divided public to talk to each other behind closed doors. The commission's work would take five years and require funding of more than 300 million pounds.

The British and Irish governments offered a muted welcome for the report's contents — reflecting their recognition of the Protestant side's undying hatred for the IRA.

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he understood why the idea of paying out flat-fee payments to relatives of the dead "has evoked such controversy in Northern Ireland."

"The government is obviously going to consider the report with great care," he said.

But First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's 20-month-old coalition government with Catholics, said he had "no doubt that many innocent victims will feel betrayed."

Robinson said he would ensure that Brown and other British officials do "not insult the innocent victims of terrorism by giving any weight to these offensive recommendations."