Looking back, and moving on?

As Pete noted earlier today, Peter Hain has announced the foundation of a group looking at possible practical ways in which the past can be dealt with. Since burying the truth about the past has been continuing on an almost industrial scale, it is going to be a tall order to come up with something that realistically does just that and can get approval from the new joint political establishment at Stormont. Here’s my own take, just published over at Comment is Free.Peter Hain, the outgoing secretary of state for Northern Ireland and Wales, has an op-ed in the Irish Times today examining what Northern Ireland should do about its past. He also launches a group to look at how reconciliation might be achieved. It’s an important question, since for many ordinary Ulster folk the past is not going away any time soon.

He notes in particular that big interventions like the Bloody Sunday inquiry are expensive and likely to come up with less than satisfactory answers:

” … after nine years and a staggering amount of money, £180m, the bulk of it in lawyers’ fees, the inquiry has still not reported. No doubt it will be as detailed and definitive an account as it is possible to create, but the real lesson it teaches us is that there has to be a better way of looking at Northern Ireland’s past than public inquiries.”

Indeed the Inquiries Act of 2005 has made virtually certain that the terms of reference for any future such inquiry are curtailed so as to make them virtually useless in getting at the truth, so far as the state is concerned. Where they are not bound by such restraint, such as the inquiry into the killing of loyalist prisoner Billy Wright, the files go missing. Not just police files, but those relating to the same incident across a range of state agencies.

You might say that the state has a get out of jail free card, except that it doesn’t cover the former RUC. The police ombudsman alone in Northern Ireland has sweeping powers of investigation. Whereas the Human Rights Commission cannot investigate any human rights abuses until August this year (in effect, implying that none took place theretofore), the Police Ombudsman can investigate police actions across the board, and retrospectively. It is the source of much brooding amongst old special branch men, many of whom know between them where most of the (metaphorical) bodies are buried.

The terms being offered non-state actors in the conflict are less clear. A deal clearing any on-the-runs from the conflict was offered to Sinn Féin earlier in its negotiations with the British government, but failed to pass a House of Commons vote in late 2005. Nevertheless, most means of inquiring into all past crimes seem sufficiently blunted or under resourced not to give any one willing to accept the new dispensation serious cause for sleepless nights over their past actions.

In the meantime, this summer loyalist bands will seek to walk past Catholic homes with commemorative symbols of terrorists emblazoned on their drumskins. And in pubs in the Catholic west, some old “volunteers” still boast publicly of how they brutally dispatched a policemen or a British soldier with their own service pistol. Victim’s groups focus mostly on their own, and not those of “the other side.” Some, whose political face does not fit the term “victim,” often find their own claims set to one side and endlessly vilified in the lowliest terms of abuse.

There is little chance that Hain’s new group will proffer the same terms suggested by Tim Garton Ash’s prescription for Poland, ie “a rapid, scrupulous, individually appealable lustration of those in genuinely important positions in public life and, even more vital, some form of public reckoning with the larger issues of the difficult past.” Rather, they are likely to be confronted with a joint will and determination to lock down the past by a new political establishment intent only on the future.

The problem is that difficult past hasn’t gone away. Some people still live with it day in, day out and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. Hain noted in response to Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the government’s amorality in dealing with such matters was that “the intense moral and political dilemmas inherent in taking the peace process forward have to be worked out in the real world and not in the philosophic abstract.”

Quite. But as Malachi O’Doherty has argued, if the state is not willing to find some satisfactory way of dealing with the unresolved issues of the past, others might just do it for them.