Oh for someone with the guts to tackle the past


By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

Painful though it is to admit it, the only politician talking sense over the past week was Peter Hain. He popped up repeatedly on the BBC, sometimes on Skype from his Neath constituency, sometimes by phone with his perma-tanned photograph on screen and on RTE too.

Of course like any other politician he has an agenda. In his case he’s preparing to defend his actions with regard to the on-the-runs. His main argument will obviously be, yes abnormal events happened, rules were bent. You wouldn’t do it in normal circumstances in a normal society but did you want peace in order to move towards a settlement?

What he has been arguing is irrefutable, that something similar to the arrest and detention of Gerry Adams could happen at any time and throw the peace process off track.

In 2008 David Park wrote a novel called The Truth Commissioner with the all too plausible plot of a senior politician in the executive here being charged with offences committed decades ago. In the book there’s a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation to produce ‘communal healing and closure’. Yes, you’ve heard all the jargon before and Park made great play with the familiar psycho-babble that ultimately signifies nothing. Psycho-babble is all victims of the Troubles have received and at the present rate of progress that’s all they’ll ever receive. As Hain pointed out, the present option means pursuing people forever and ever all the while wasting public money and raising false hopes. Ninety per cent of Troubles killings remain ‘unsolved’ and every indication is there’ll never be an improvement on that figure. ‘Unsolved’ in the context of The North means that no-one has been made amenable for the killings but it’s generally known which agency was responsible, IRA, UVF, UDA, UDR, British army etc. Everyone knows that’s all that will ever be known as long as there’s a likelihood of prosecution.

There’s deadlock between the two political blocs here about how to proceed and that impasse has solidified.

Unionists give priority to trying to prove the IRA was responsible for starting everything and now even more absurdly, that the Irish government created the IRA. On the other hand republicans want to implicate the British government as responsible for the loyalist proxy killers and for conspiring with loyalist murder gangs and the UDR and RUC to kill Catholics. Does anyone except our clueless proconsul and the hands-off Tanaiste believe those two diametrically opposed positions are ever going to produce an acceptable process for dealing with the past?

Absent any agreed process, we’re going to have an arrest every couple of weeks of some 70-year-old for a killing forty-odd years ago. He will then be released without charge a couple of days later: no evidence, no witnesses. Those arrests should begin to peter out around 2025 for obvious reasons.

It is self-evident, given the potential danger to the stability of politics here that arrests like that of Gerry Adams can cause, and given the futility of endlessly raking over the ashes of the 1970s and 1980s that it is the duty and responsibility of the Irish and British governments to legislate to put into effect the logic of the 1998 deal on prisoner release, that is to draw a line at that date.

There are various ways to do it including one suggested by Peter Hain that people can turn up at an agreed place, make an admission and have the slate wiped clean.

This suggestion horrifies Unionists because they won’t admit they don’t seek justice, only revenge. Equally, Republicans object that state agencies and successive British governments will get off scot free in such a system. Look, they’ve got off scot free anyway. Get over it. The alternative is for each rooster to stand on its dung hill and crow at the other in perpetuity. In the meantime the inertia of Dublin and London is entirely responsible for last week’s dangerous circumstances. Unfortunately neither the NIO nor the Department of Foreign Affairs has a politician with the guts, principle or imagination to take the matter in hand and act to prevent similar danger to peace erupting next month or next year.

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