“To sift the truth in such a murky world requires a disinterested eye and a cool head”

In the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke picks up on the recently revealed cost of public inquiries, which were detailed in a written answer from Peter Hain. And he identifies a significant problem behind an “official truth-recovery effort [which] has become an adversarial quagmire in which public funds and public confidence sink without trace.”

The beginning of truth recovery would be to remove the barriers to telling the truth and stop punishing those who do so. That means encouraging retired public servants to speak out and granting amnesties to all who admit Troubles-related crimes to a commission of inquiry. It means imposing penalties on those withholding information rather than those who come forward with it.

The bills for those inquiries are likely to climb even higher

The official truth-recovery effort has become an adversarial quagmire in which public funds and public confidence sink without trace. £34m has been devoted to the PSNI historic inquiries process, the bulk of it to a specialist police team. The rest has gone to other investigating bodies, such as the police ombudsman’s office, for a mammoth review of all the murders during the Troubles. Already the police team has said the money will not be enough to finish the job, and the ombudsman is complaining that the burden of the investigations is getting in the way of current work.

By comparison to public tribunals, the historic inquiries process is cheap. The inquiries into the deaths of Billy Wright, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill are scarcely underway but already they have cost more than £19.5m. Attempts are being made to cap the expenditure and restrict representation, but as individuals mount legal battles for anonymity and the state seeks to restrict the disclosure of documents, the figures can be expected to pass any preset limits.

None of these inquiries are likely to rival Lord Saville’s leviathan of a Bloody Sunday inquiry, which has already cost nearly £194m. Before it started, Tony Blair had apologised for the shootings on Bloody Sunday and said those killed were blameless. Nine years of sifting evidence is unlikely to change that position. The army will be found to be mainly at fault for what happened and nobody will be satisfied.

There’s been one recent legal ruling on the Billy Wright inquiry which will affect those attempts to cap the expenditure.

And Liam Clarke points out that those reluctant to delve into the past are not exclusively within government ranks

In a world in which senior republicans such as Denis Donaldson and Freddie Scappaticci worked with the British and Irish security services, the old certainties of freedom fighters versus occupying forces melt away like morning mist. The intelligence services manipulated paramilitary groups on both sides. They were never in complete control, but were often able to pick who would rise and who would fall in the leadership of republican and loyalist groups.

Recently, Gerry Adams demanded an inquiry into claims by a former police officer that Special Branch knew of a planned UDA attack on his life in 1984.

Adams knows from earlier disclosures that Special Branch and military intelligence had in fact acted to save his life by doctoring the bullets fired at him and intercepting the killers.

Probing such issues raises the uncomfortable question of why Adams was saved by the British Army while other republicans were being targeted and killed. Nobody could suggest he was a British agent or even knew of the protection afforded him, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the securocrats were able to play favourites with the republican leadership on the basis of information supplied by high-level informants.

And he has a suggestion for a way forward into that past

To sift the truth in such a murky world requires a disinterested eye and a cool head, not an adversarial legal bear garden like the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It would involve an inquisitorial approach in which experts could be given access to papers and records accrued by the likes of the Stevens inquiry. They could interview individuals with promises of immunity or anonymity and threats of sanctions sufficient to loosen tongues. They could publish as much of the results as they thought fit and embargo other sections for the lifetimes of those involved.