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Putting the Past Before Us: On the eve of the Eames Bradley Report, the story thus far

Tomorrow the long awaited Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on The Past (CGP) report will be released. Recent reports suggesting that all victims of the troubles (irrespective of their own roles in the troubles) will be entitled to the same compensation have understandably raised emotions even before the full report is known. Hopefully the release of the report will clarify what exactly can be expected.

The CGP came in to being as an independent group formed in order to gather information across Northern Ireland about the best way to deal with the legacy of the past. This is not a new concept however for Northern Ireland. Calls for such a process of investigation have been in the mix for some years.

 An early indication of interest is noted by Bill Rolston  (professor of Sociology at the Transitional Justice Institute at UU)in his 1996 study of the search for truth and justice in Northern Ireland: Turning the Page Without Closing the Book: The Right to Truth in the Irish Context. Here he quotes Martin Finucane (the brother of Pat Finucane ) addressing the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation : "if we are to overcome our past, we must come to terms with it, and we can only do that if we know the truth about it"

During the troubles, and since Finucane's call for an investigation in to the past, there have been a number of investigations in to past abuses- both official state investigations and independent non-state investigations. Amongst the official there is the now-infamous Widgery Investigation in to Bloody Sunday, the investigations in to the shoot-to-kill allegations, and the most recent Bloody Sunday enquiry. Non-state investigations include the high profile investigations in to the murders of solicitors Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane, and less well known the killings of the so-called "New Lodge Six", as well as the Ardoyne Commemoration Project  (ACP) which acted as a mini-truth commission focused on telling the stories of those killed in the Ardoyne area during the troubles (Published as The Untold Truth by the Ardoyne Commemoration Project ).

Between November 1997 and April 1998 Kenneth Bloomingfield, then Northern Ireland's victim's commission, held an enquiry into "ways to recognize the pain and suffering felt by victims of the violence arising from the troubles". The final report entitled "We Will Remember Them" published in April 1998 was accompanied by a suggestion that a truth commission would be a future consideration.

There was however a sense that the Bloominfield report had created a "hierarchy of victims" with those killed by the State forces being left at the bottom. It was in part in reaction to this that the ACP was set up.

In 2001 the independent group Healing Through Remembering came in to being. The impetus for its formation came from the 1999 visit of Alex Boraine, deputy chair of the TRC, and the subsequent report from that visit "All Truth is Bitter". The goal of HTR was to work towards an understanding of "healing of the wounds of society…to identify and document possible mechanisms and realisable options for healing through remembering fo rthose people affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland" (HTR report. All HTR documents available at their website )

In 2003 then Chief Constable Hugh Orde, on the question of a truth and reconciliation forum, said that "There needs to be something that gives everyone an opportunity to say their piece, to get the best explanation they can on what happened to their families, their loved ones, so that they can then get on with their lives" (BBC News, 10 June 2003),

Orde's comments were initially dismissed by many but the momentum continued with Peter Hain in 2005 saying that would be "looking at processes by  which people can get at the truth and have some acknowledgement for their pain and suffering" (Observer, July 31 2005)

The 2006 BBC program "Facing the Truth" placed a barrier in front of openness to a truth commission, with many seeing it as a kind of reality-tv shambles. Fears regarding what a truth commission might consist of would not have been calmed with respect to this programme. The face of Tutu leading the bizarre and upsetting meetings between perpetrators and victims would also only further have entrenched the iea that a truth commission necessarily means the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since 2006 the setting up of the Historical Enquiries Team  to re-open investigations in to deaths during the troubles, the work done by Nuala O' Loan as the police ombudsman ad the various investigations which her office headed, with much controversey, have continued to keep the past, its abuses and justice for these abuses in the public eye. Most recently Mary Robinson speaking at the Amnesty annual lecture on human rights spoke of the need for a truth commission

This is not to suggest that there is a broadsweeping belief that dealing with the past is the right thing to do. There is equally a desire to draw a line under the past and 'just move on'. I would question the thinking behind this

There will definately be those who would rather not think about the past because of the suffering the experienced living through it the first time. For many reliving it through a truth commission could be just a further trauma for them to endure. There may also be fears that a truth commission type process will be run very similarly to the South African TRC, the most famous of all of the twenty-plus so-far held worldwide, of the late 1990's. These fears might include worries that anyone who testifies would have to do so in public (although this was not the case in the TRC, there is the misconception that it was the case), and that the perpetrators would be given amnesty in return for admitting their crimes. At least this last fear has already been addressed with Eames and Bradley already having made a statement that there will be no such amnesties in any possible future commission in Northern Ireland.

While these fears are well-founded I would also suggest that there may be a far more cynical impetus behind the calls to 'draw a line'. For those who are likely to be exposed as responsible for some of the atrocities of the troubles a truth commission is not something to look forward to. Responsibility here will stretch from the individuals in both state forces and paramilitary groups to the commanding groups and individuals that gave the orders, made the policies and turned a blind eye to unofficial policies which caused great suffering. REcognising the extent to which responsibility may be found at many levels should not however lead to the assumption, and commonly proclaimed idea, that 'everyone was to blame' , 'playing the blame game gets us nowhere', 'we all have blood on our hands'. These claims act only as a blind-sider to take attention away from the reality of what people did, and the choices they made to do this- ignoring that there were plenty of people who did nothing wrong, and also made that choice.

What might the Eames Bradley report offer? If there is to be a truth commission process (and the indications are that there will be some kind of a long-term investigation recommended) what will be the main aims? Will it have a broad scope in terms of who and what it is investigating? Will justice be its main aim, or truth? What level of access will such an investigation have to state files? Will there be protection for those willing to testify? Will there be the possibility of legal proceedings from the results of the investigation? Can we expect to see state officials and former paramilitaries admitting accountability? What role will other actors play such as the churches and schools, which some suggest also played a role and must also be seen to be held responsible?

Priscilla Hayner in her study of truth commissions outlines the five main goals of a truth commission

* The discovery, clarification, and formal acknowledgement of past abuses

* To respond to victims' specific needs

* To contribute to justice and accountability

* Outlining institutional responsibility and the recommendation of reforms, and

* To promote reconciliation and reduce conflict over the past

It will interesting to see tomorrow how many of these the report can be considered to respond adequately to. I for one remain hopeful that what will be produced will at least move toward dealing with the past, and recognising accountability for abuses, rather than pretending it never happened and that nobody was to blame.

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