“There is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended.” | Terry Wright | Slugger O’Toole | 28 July 2021
There have been proposals for ‘Dealing with the Past.’ None of them appear to work either in securing prosecutions or in allowing the community to future-proof political, social and economic life.
Progress towards resolution is erratic and piecemeal: strewn with unrealistic expectations, with denial and silence as the moral options.
For politicians, it is never far beneath the surface, if at all. For individuals and families impacted by loss, injury and lack of atonement and remorse, it slumbers, if at all.
The recent proposals for measures including the highly publicised Statute of Limitations by the Secretary of State, the debate at a recalled but less than consensual Stormont and now the court pronouncement with regard to the Omagh bombing are all a case in point.
There is little evidence of any significant movement forward as only one element of the proposal is highlighted to the neglect of other provisions and addressed in politically loaded and charged atmosphere. Uniformity of opposition failed to produce any harmony of values. Agreement breaks apart.
It also flows into local politics.
The Business and Culture Committee of Derry and Strabane District Council last week recommended support for a request by the Bloody Sunday Trust, based in the city, for £50,000 funding and assistance in kind to support events commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the deaths resulting from actions on 30 January 1972.
3 Unionist representatives on the committee withheld their support, 8 independents and nationalist Councillors, of different hues, took an opposite view.
Claiming lack of detail in what is being planned, the Unionist representatives referred to inequality and marginalisation in how legacy is addressed in the city and Council area. They have since expressed discontent at, in their view, some deaths being highlighted above others and prioritised by media and justice campaigners in academia and NGOs; seemingly of most interest when it relates to the state.
The organisers, the Bloody Sunday Trust have intimated a desire to promote reconciliation through the commemoration but there does not appear to be any specific or equally- weighted reference to other ‘bloody days’ in the Council area, not least in Strabane, Castlederg and Claudy.
Inevitably, it is seen as running counter to addressing the shared tragedy of conflict; as lacking inclusivity and sensitivity in acknowledging the hurt of the ‘other.’
Those withholding approval do not see why an event should be funded by the Council if it is likely to have a negative impact on community relations and prove detrimental to collaborative governance going forward at a time when there a need for co-operation on economic recovery and jobs.
The situation serves as a microcosm of how sensitive issues of inequality and a level playing field linked to ‘dealing with the past’ and left unresolved in the Good Friday Agreement emerge to stall the community in moving forward.
Anyone who is surprised at this has not been paying attention.
Many in Northern Ireland have shared the experience of conflict and violence but those experiences have not been the same. There are many pasts and many narratives. There are different views of who or what is right and who or what is wrong; whether or not the war was justified. The champions for the differing views are absolutist and unyielding.
This is a situation which has run like a fault line within the community since 1998.
In its acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement and the promise of a new beginning, the majority of people chose the extent to which they were prepared to adjust and risk their respective stances to nurture a moral fudge that facilitated and continues to inform what remains a process.
The unorthodox became the new orthodoxy.
The previously unacceptable was mainstreamed.
It became right to do what seemed the wrong thing as representatives of armed groups, yet to de-commission, were accepted into politics and prisoners were released.
For their part, paramilitary groups, particularly republican, judged it necessary to promote a peace process as a strategic ‘other means’ of continuing the struggle to make acceptable the futility of the loss and injury of its soldiers. It became necessary to steal the dead for political purposes; to pursue the demonisation of the perceived enemy both to justify past actions and promote the open secret of the ‘Trojan Horse’ agenda.
This was facilitated by a process lacking in any consensually-agreed moral compass or narrative. Sectarianism, political attrition and competing constitutional outcomes from all sides have been embedded into the institutions as a result.
The past has become weaponised and factional as politicians fail to show courageous leadership and bring resolution to establishing truth, delivering closure, in so far as this is possible, and meeting the financial, welfare and personal needs of those affected by loss and injury.
Community allegiance is paraded as a commodity but serves only to camouflage failure.
At times, legitimising a preferred narrative appears to be the real priority as initiative after initiative edges towards a state of inertia.
Victims and survivors who, in their words, wish to move on are continually dragged back by the belligerency.
To sustain peace and work towards a future from which fresh generations should benefit, these ‘legacy ‘politics and what flows from them need to be de-commissioned.
Attempts have been made through enquiries and court actions. They are costly and in the main focus on the actions of the state. There is no even- handed strategy offering enquiries into similar incidents perpetrated by paramilitary organisations so they create as many problems as they solve.
Any audit of their effectiveness would indicate that the time is now probably past for such a measure to be meaningful.
It is rarely easy but they are re-establishing a stable, humane and civility-focused base, firmer than in the past, for taking society forward with a more inclusive and determined focus. Theirs is the methodology and agenda more likely to ensure that there will be no return to the past. They take a hard look at themselves. The scales fall off to see the other without pre-judgement. Relationships are built on what people are for rather than what they are against.
The emphasis is on learning from the hurt; developing a contextual understanding of the troubles to bring healing and ensure that as a community we never repeat what we have done in the past; that younger generations will construct a different history.
For this to continue, requires support through political leadership embedded in the necessity of doing what must be done to re-build shared moral and ethical values, the absence of which promotes an imperfect peace and political instability.
For this to continue requires grace and compassion from those who were the orchestrators and perpetrators of conflict. It requires atonement and truth telling on all sides. It requires remembrance where it is practised to be repentant. It requires honesty and openness for no person can be their own mediator. It requires all to test their actions, past and present, against measures that are robust in terms of humanity and social justice.
The resources lie within and acted upon without selection may begin to repair the brokenness of victims left on the margins of the political Agreements.
Some victims seek retribution, whilst others seek information, justice and closure or a combination of these. They are not all attainable in every instance.
However, all need truth and it should not be beyond our capacity to create processes wherein this can happen. Not without difficulty, this is the most achievable and once underway and completed may diminish the demand for other actions.
In his proposals currently tabled, the Secretary of State may not have provided all the answers but he is posing the right questions as have others like John Larkin on previous occasions.
Ending access to lawful recourse is highly problematic. It challenges our sense of justice but is this already compromised, not least by letters to OTRs, secret deals and the arbitrary decision-making of governments, not just within the United Kingdom?
The pursuit of justice is not achieving for all if it shuts down other ways of knowing.
Without truth and information recovery, justice is reserved for a few.
It seems clear at present that the community and politicians, publicly at least, are unwilling to endorse the proposals by the Secretary of State. Privately, views are less robust as individuals and groups realise the current situation is unsustainable.
There are issues within the proposals to be resolved within a framework of rights and responsibilities but there are aspects which emulate previous good work in Eames-Bradley and the Stormont House Agreement. These need to be energised and brought in from the side-lines to build unity across the whole community, with victim and survivors central, around core purpose.
A quality of response more constructive, transparent and considered, than that which has so far emerged from political forums, could build hope for a future better than our past.
Northern Ireland has had enough of the tyranny of selective hearing.
The task is not to consign present opportunities to a list of past failings.