Dealing with the past – for Northern Ireland’s future
As Richard Haass, the one-time American peace envoy to Northern Ireland, gets ready to make a return visit - this time like a lone US cavalry man coming to rescue our politicians from themselves – one of the big three issues his Talks are meant to address seems to be getting a lot less attention than the others.
Perhaps it is understandable, after the last nine months of public disorder related to the flying of flags and regulation of parades, that these two issues have dominated the pre-Haass political debate.
But it is the third of the roundtable talks strands – “dealing with the past” – that will surely test the ambition and ability of our leaders to find long-term solutions, not just short-term fixes.
What screams out from the pages of the report published today is that too many victims and their families – from right across the community – have been failed by the inadequate, fragmented processes for dealing with the past which have so far been put in place.
Over the past 18 months Amnesty International has spent a lot of time speaking with victims and families in Northern Ireland affected by the violence of the past. One family told us: “There are still a lot of broken hearts in Northern Ireland, families who need to know what happened and who need help to get that truth”.
Many families echoed these sentiments, telling us about their search for the truth and their anger and frustration at being told to “move on” or “draw a line in the sand”. More underlined the need for recognition and acknowledgment of what had happened to them. The past cannot be simply swept to one side. It is a part of the everyday lives of many people in Northern Ireland.
But it’s not just individual families and victims of violence who have been failed, It is wider society in Northern Ireland too. Unless and until we are able to deal effectively with our recent history, then our past will continue to haunt our present and future.
However, rather than a comprehensive and systematic approach to the past in Northern Ireland, in the fifteen years since 1998, victims have been let down with fragmented and piecemeal measures. Various mechanisms do exist to examine historical killings – the Police Ombudsman, the Historical Enquiries Team, the Coroner’s Service – but their work has been far from uniform and their findings have not to date been coordinated to expose the truth that lies in Northern Ireland’s past.
This has left much of the truth hidden, those in positions of responsibility shielded and a lack of any shared public understanding of the abuses committed by all sides. In the end Northern Ireland requires far more than political rhetoric around “a shared future”. It requires commitment and willingness by all players to address the past systematically; to establish the truth, identify and acknowledge the wrongs committed, and to learn the lessons of history to ensure that past abuses are not repeated. Without a comprehensive approach to address the legacy of the past, Northern Ireland’s pain will continue to cast a shadow over its future.
Now - fifteen years on from that historic deal, with Northern Ireland still facing violence and division - is the time for leaders to garner the will and courage to fulfil the outstanding promises of the Agreement and finally examine how Northern Ireland should deal with its past and build a future that is both shared and sustainable.
This was originally pubilshed on the Belfast Telegraph
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.