Deniers, amnesiacs and stonewallers: step aside. Time to deal with the past in Northern Ireland

The deniers, amnesiacs, refuseniks and blockers have been out in force of late.

Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies, documenting collusion in over one hundred loyalist killings was received with predictable, knee-jerk denials among some senior unionists.

The pain inflicted by the IRA and laid bare in Darragh McIntrye’s programme on The Disappeared was met with selective amnesia from senior republicans.

Attempts by the Police Ombudsman to investigate allegations of police wrong-doing in relation to a number of paramilitary killings has resulted in the refusal of retired police officers to cooperate.

Meanwhile, the demands for a public inquiry from families like those bereaved in the Omagh bomb have been met with a brick wall from the UK government.

But the denials, the forgetfulness and the obstructions cannot stop the past from catching up with us.

Like storm water coursing down the Mournes and through the gaps in a dry stone wall, the truth about the past – even if slowly – will always find a way.

No week goes past without fresh horrors, reminders of what has gone before, warnings of what could return if peace is squandered.

From coroners’ inquests, reopened police investigations, HET inquiries and Police Ombudsman reports; from taped interviews, academic studies and NGO research; from digging at the public records office to journalistic endeavours… the past teems forth.

But our flawed and fragmented processes for uncovering the past are a mess. And it’s a mess which betrays victims and bereaved families.

The failure of the State to properly investigate human rights violations and abuses from decades of violence is not just a kick in the teeth to people who have already suffered too much, it is a knee in the gut to all here who want solid foundations on which to build a society at peace with itself.

When information is delivered partially and in a drip-feed fashion, the broader truth about past violations and abuses remains hidden and the guilty are shielded. Such a faltering approach to uncovering the past undermines the possibility of any shared public understanding and recognition of the abuses committed by all sides. Instead, we bequeath our children increasingly divergent versions of history.

Of course, on the part of the UK government, it also represents a failure to live up to its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to deliver effective and independent investigation of killings.

It is clear that what is now needed is a new approach, one that meets the State’s commitments under international law, the victims’ right to truth and justice and society’s need to address and then move on from its blood-stained past.

That approach is not to be found in ‘tea and sympathy’ for the victims, nor in leaving it just to academics to trawl old archives or create new ones. Paying lip service to the past would be the worst disservice to victims’ need for truth and justice.

It is to be found in the establishment of a single mechanism capable of ensuring that ALL allegations of human rights abuses and violations in the past – by state and non-state actors alike – are investigated in a prompt, impartial, independent, thorough and effective manner.

That means that no victim gets ignored. No ‘side’ escapes scrutiny. No-one gets to rewrite history. No-one is easily able to deny, forget or obstruct.

That is the challenge for Haass and O’Sullivan, for the parties represented at their round table and – crucially – for two parties that are not: the UK government, which would have to legislate for the new mechanism, and the Irish government which, along with London, would have to sign up to cooperate with it.

Of course, failure is very much a possibility in the haste to meet a December deadline.

But it is a failure that Northern Ireland would repent at leisure.

Read the Amnesty report: Northern Ireland: Time to deal with the past

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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.
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1 comment

i am writing as much in response to the very sensible comments made by john larkin, the AG of NI who called for a moratorium on prosecutions in northern ireland. you opposed his remarks and my thoughts went back to AI's report on the past published recently. it was an interesting and informative report but suffered from a fatal contradiction. you want a truth telling process of some sort yet you also want prosecutions. so let me get this right: i am a former IRA or UVF or UDA man and i am tempted to come forward to tell my story but to do so i must also submit myself to a public trial and possible conviction. so tell me, what are the odds i am going to do this? answer: zero! your attitude to larkin's comments further suggests to me that the insane are running the asylum. what NI needs, what any society which has gone through a thirty year conflict needs, is to draw the line under the past and to move on. people like you, o'loan and others are, for reasons that i cannot comprehend, intent on re-fighting the war. for how many more years? when does it end? if you had a chance of equality in your prosecution process, i could maybe understand. but there is no way the british or irish governments are going to submit their armies, police forces and intelligence agencies to prosecution, much less investigation. go ask the finucane family about that! the reality is that if you and o'loan get your way the only people facing prosecution will be ex-paramilitaries. the consequence of that is so obvious that it baffles me that people like you can think any other way. the UVF ceasefire is all but over. why don't you go out and ask the UVF why. they will tell you it is because of the threat posed to their members by the HET and this lunacy of pursuing prosecutions. the same process will also eat away at the IRA ceasefire. that's why i say the lunatics are running the asylum.

edmoloney01 10 years ago