Northern Ireland: 'It must never happen again'

While Northern Ireland's Consultative Group on the Past won’t be publishing their report till the summer, yesterday it’s co-chairs, Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, set out to trail their findings with a joint keynote speech in Belfast.

Given that part of their role is to consider if and how Northern Ireland might go about establishing a suitable truth recovery process, it is perhaps fitting that they have started their own ‘harsh truth confrontation process’.

They presented a mini-narrative of the last forty years and, as analysed by Brian Rowan in the Belfast Telegraph, set out an "assessment of what is possible and what is not".

In any attempt to deal with the legacy of a conflict, there are at least four – sometimes competing – personal and/or societal objectives: truth, justice, reconciliation and peace.

The challenge for Eames-Bradley is not simply how to maximise the return on all these fronts, but also to openly acknowledge what may not be possible and, just as importantly, why not.

There is much in this thoughtful speech to make people uncomfortable – those within paramilitary organisations and governments, as well as those who cheered on or just quietly supported from the sidelines.

They had this to say to republicans: "if the aim of the Republican struggle was to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, the brutal logic of their violence undermined this aim."

To loyalists: "Loyalists sought to defend the Union but they killed those they wished to convince had a future within the Union. The flawed logic of their violence only served to undermine their goal."

To the UK government: "elements of the State, on some occasions, acted outside the law and through handling of intelligence it could even be said innocent people were allowed to die. We cannot ignore that, in fact, the State sometimes acted illegally."

To the Irish government: "One of the resonating themes we heard from some within Unionist communities was the belief that the Irish State turned a blind eye when Republicans carried out attacks in border areas and fled back into the south."

Yet, what we all want to hear from the Consultative Group is not their own reading of history (although I have little or no argument with it), but rather a signpost to the future by setting out a process for dealing with our past.

On this they gave a few clues – mostly to the effect that:

  • victims (there are thousands of unresolved killings) should mostly give up any remaining hope of getting justice through the courts;

"We sympathize with this desire for justice. However it is difficult for us not to listen to those experts who are telling us that the reality is that as each day passes securing justice becomes less and less likely. The public needs to understand the limitations in securing convictions."

  • the Group may recommend some sort of truth recovery process;

"…there are other ways of seeking truth that do not include long drawn out judicial processes. What we need is our solution to our problem. This will form an important part of our report and recommendations"

  • that the financial costs of such a process or other parallel initiatives should not come out of the Northern Ireland Executive budget;

"it should not be our fledgling political institutions that carry the financial burden to deal with the past"

  • that perpetrator organisations (including governments) should own up to their portion of responsibility;

"discovering or admitting wrong things were done, could be a liberating experience."

  • and that all should make 'never again' commitments;

"they have to say 'it must never happen again'."

Within the speech are the beginnings of what may turn out to be very useful report recommendations, yet the Consultative Group will be making a terrible mistake if the "our solution to our problem" which they finally recommend, falls short of international human rights standards on truth and justice.

Rather worryingly, they note: "Full disclosure has its repercussions and no community would be left unscathed. Would the Republican community like to have to tell an aging mother that her martyred son was actually an informer? That is what full disclosure could mean."

Let's be clear here. Victims have a right to truth and a right to justice. These should not be compromised for political expediency, or because it makes life uncomfortable for some, or because someone wants to cling to a partial narrative or because someone else prefer to do without a challenge to their justification for committing human rights abuses.

The terms of reference (written by the Northern Ireland Office) of the Consultative Group (established by the Northern Ireland Office) would appear to bias them in favour of peace and reconciliation over justice and truth:

"To consult across the community on how Northern Ireland society can best approach the legacy of the events of the past 40 years; and to make recommendations, as appropriate, on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the events of the past."

Yet Amnesty International’s experience of truth recovery processes in over thirty (primarily post-conflict) countries would suggest that the most effective way of moving towards long-term peace, stability and reconciliation is to confront and interrogate the past and maximise the scope for justice. One does not build a solid and stable future on a foundation of half-lies and concealments.

Meanwhile we await the Group’s final report and postpone any verdict till then. Let’s hope it will be worthy of the terrible experiences of a society which is still far from coming to terms with its past.

UPDATE: This blog is also featured on Our Kingdom at OpenDemocracy. Join the debate there too.

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