Handling the truth

Writing in the Irish Times, David Adams sets out his concerns about a Truth Commission [subs. req.], following a one-day conference, “Telling the Truth in Northern Ireland”, at Trinity College Dublin, organised by Nigel Biggar, professor of theology at Trinity’s School of Religions and Theology – “We met to discuss whether there should be some kind of “truth process” in Northern Ireland; if so, what form it might take; and, crucially, the many problems such a process would face.”Despite the laudable aims of such a Truth Commission, I’ve yet to be convinced that, in practice, it would come close to satisfying the varied, and often contradictory, needs and/or agendas of the required participants.

And Adams acknowledges those difficulties –

Those of us who have promoted the idea of a truth process should be under no illusions about the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking or, in particular, the damage that could be done if it wasn’t handled properly.

I was certainly left with no illusions after the conference.

I was even more aware than before of just how difficult, if not downright impossible, it will be to overcome some of those obstacles.

He considers the reality facing those who would have to provide information for such a Commission to be viable –

We have to consider, too, what incentive there could possibly be for people such as politicians, clergy or business leaders to volunteer information to a truth commission regarding their own role in the conflict.

If anything, they would have a strong vested interest in not co-operating.

Is it desirable (or even feasible), then, that a truth commission should have powers to investigate, seize documents and summon people to account for themselves if there seems to be sufficient evidence that they have a case to answer? And, in those circumstances, what safeguards would there be for high-profile individuals who would forever run the risk of being maliciously named?

To protect against that, should media access be strictly limited with most sittings held in private? What impact would such restrictions have on public confidence in the process and, in any event, would it be realistic to expect there wouldn’t be a continuous leaking of information from the proceedings? Unless properly designed and managed, of course, a truth process would always be open to abuse by those intent on using it to rewrite history to their own advantage.

He identifies perhaps the most obvious problem for any Truth Commission operating in a society where much of the political wrangling remains embedded in competing versions of the past –

Those seeking to inflate their particular “truth” at the expense of others’ versions would try to use a truth process as a platform from which to continue the conflict by other means.

Further hurt would then be heaped on already grieving relatives forced to watch from the sidelines as their bereavement is used to bolster the position of one side or another in a public squabble between opposing factions.

And he ends with, IMO, an astute observation on the prospects for a truth-seeking process at this point –

Unless people on all sides are willing to face up to the pain of objective truth and, further, have a clear and realistic idea of the limits to what can reasonably be achieved, then a truth process should, at least at this juncture, be a non-runner. Unless the circumstances are right, there would be a real risk of it further entrenching divisions or, at best, raising public expectations and then dashing them again.

So the ultimate question must be: are the people of Northern Ireland ready to face the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

As yet, there’s little evidence from any side that, even if the people were ready, the truth would be forthcoming.