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.

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  • Looks like lots of mistakes have been made round the world in this area. If we can understand what was wrong in other “peace and reconciliation” exercises, maybe we can avoid some of their mistakes.

    I’d put “wasting millions on lawyers” in the BS enquiry up near the head of the list, but I’m sure there are many many more examples.

  • Sam Spud

    Mick, I’m off-post here. But I’ve just watched the Let’s Talk for this week and I am so pissed off I need to vent. Can you set up a post on Let’s Talk so that we can give Mark Carruthers some comments on how to chair a public discussion?

    I’ve just watched him allow a panel to meander round rhetorical corners for 10mins at a time, then take forever to ask the audience for their views. Then his producer doesnt seem to know WHEN to move on to the next question.

    17 mins on the east belfast floods!

    Then we came to the Ian Jr homphobia comments. Carruthers was a complete pushover, he had no idea how to deal with the topic. The issue is NOT whether paisley is entitled to say what he said as a politician, or whether he regrets what he said. Its whether an equality minister can possibly stay in office having given this interview. This would not be possible in any other western democracy.

    When an uninformed american in the audience went off on on about hurricane katrina, carruthers allowed the panel to get into that discussion too, thereby further letting paisley off the hook.

    Can we please raise up some decent interviewers and journalists in this country? Put david dimbleby in the chair and he would have demolished paisley’s ridiculous replies with two questions. Insteaad, this programme has a presenter who lets him off the hook again and again and again.

    Please Let’s Talk producers:

    1. Limit Mark’s willingness to allow a discussion to exhaust the audience’s attention and interest.

    2. Make this programme pacier. Let’s train guests to do what they do on BBC Question Time: answer the question in 50 seconds, allowing more time for rejoinders etc.

    3. Don’t go to the audience quite as often. If you do, then don’t let mark turn it into an interview with a random member of the audience. Get their view, Mark, and move on. I don’t need you to examine a punter’s view with three additional questions.

    4. I know you want to put mark behind a podium with his pen in the air to avoid looking like u’r doing Q and A or Question Time. Well listen, word to the wise: You Are. So put him behind the table, get him to take part a LOT less, quicken up the topics, pace and discussion.

    In other words, give Mark 10 years of BBC Question Time and get him to learn from Dimbleby and predecessors. Or even the Radio 4 any questions programme. In all those questions, theres a lot LESS of the presenter. Short, sharp interventions; not long rambling attempts to form a question in the air while waving a pen around like a schoolteacher taking a roll.

    Also, when Mark encounters a panellist who is flailing around without an answer to a question, for god’s sake just move on to someone else, don’t make us listen to that for two more follow-up questions.

    If i sound like im losing my patience with this programme, it’s because i am.

    I honestly now think the BBC should replace Mark in his programme if he isnt able to lift this programme from the doldrums its now in.

  • Rooanne

    sam,

    couldnt agree more. youve summed up the central problem with that show. let’s talk should be a much more important programme than it is. instead its extremely dull and unfocused. can anyone suggest other ways to fix it? seriously impressed sam.

    roo

  • Cruimh

    “Its whether an equality minister can possibly stay in office having given this interview.”

    one small problem – Ian Paisley junior isn’t an equality minister ….

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m going to set up a thread on Let’s Talk late so people can talk there, and let those who want to (if any) comment on the story above…

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Ian Paisley junior isn’t an equality minister

    He is a minister responsible for equality, as it’s part of OFMDFM’s remit.

    Re: Mick’s post. One thing Hain didn’t mention was that the £180m cost of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry could have been saved if the government had simply told the truth.

  • hi MF, I’m wondering to what you are referencing with … “Since burying the truth about the past has been continuing on an almost industrial scale…”

    also I’m not familiar with your ref to “.. 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.”
    Do you have a link ?

  • Looks like lots of mistakes have been made round the world in this area. If we can understand what was wrong in other “peace and reconciliation” exercises, maybe we can avoid some of their mistakes.

    Paul (and sorry for previously nicking your name;))

    In Eastern Europe in 1989, there were two solutions attempted.
    First in East Germany was full disclosure which completely unsettled both people on an individual relationship basis and society as a whole (imagine finding out someone that you’d worked beside, was somebody who’d being spying on you for 20 plus years). But 18 years on, its settled, there’s a growing acceptance of what people were forced to do under a dictatorship.

    In places like Poland and Hungary, however all *this kind of thing* was pushed under the carpet in order to provide a smooth, bloodless transition and in the hope that somehow things would work themselves out. It hasn’t happened; the riots and civil unrest last year in Hungary were the direct result of a very large part of the population thinking the “commies have gotten away with it”

    The two nutcases presently in charge in Poland are a direct result of this inability to confront and be honest about the past…there would be no need for “lustration” now if here had been a lot more honesty in 1989.

    Lessons we should we learn?
    People standing up and owning their past in the vast majority of cases will cause, in the long term, no personal nor electoral damage, people will have previously suspected so much anyhow…eg, off the top of my head obviously, Gerry Adams suddenly admits some kind of responsibility for La Mon, less people will vote for him? Probably not. Tne rest of the population will look at him in a more positive light? Probably.

  • Cruimh

    Sorry Gonzo – it’s a simple fact – there is no such post as equality minister. And he is no more responsible for equality than any other junior minister – in any department – as all our ministers are supposed to be 100% committed to equality.

  • Mick Fealty

    That story, anonymous, was from an anonymous witness who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

    I hadn’t read Dan Keenan’s report when I blogged this yesterday, but he carries an admission of just how difficult it is going to be to get this project taken seriously enough to carry it off from Denis Bradley:

    “This is a very tough task and I think some people will welcome this but others may well be angered by it. People may well be suspicious of it …as far as I am concerned people will not come forward with their views and ideas on the ways forward if they have hurts that they think are not being dealt with.” [emphasis added]

  • People standing up and owning their past in the vast majority of cases will cause, in the long term, no personal nor electoral damage, people will have previously suspected so much anyhow…e.g., off the top of my head obviously, Gerry Adams suddenly admits some kind of responsibility for La Mon, less people will vote for him? Probably not. Tne rest of the population will look at him in a more positive light? Probably.

    Posted by o’neill

    o’neill
    Your right in the above, but I feel many people in England will be shocked if it comes to light that the security services and armed forces have been involved in State sanctioned murder and allowing informers to commit crimes up to murder to protect their cover. This will have a long over due impact on how the security services are governed etc in the UK, as I believe there will be demands to bring them into line with how some of our more democratic European neighbors oversee their spooks.

    Of course the State and it acolytes will fight tooth and nail to keep this particular genie in the bottle, for if it gets out it will pour shit all over the political, military and security service establishment and their friends in the media, who for decades covered up the truth of what was going on in the north of Ireland.

    Just as it has got a bit bumpy for the comrades in Poland of late, and rightly so, if any T@RC gets off the ground a good many will have to hold onto their heads, let alone their pensions. Lets not forget we are not talking about the odd bung for an honour here, now are we?.

    regards

  • mickhall, I’m not sure that news of state involvement in “questionable” activities would cause as much of a storm as you suggest – not if it is in the context of revelations about other atrocities carried out by loyalist and republican terrorists / organised crime lords / freedom fighters.

    Unless, like some in Sinn Fein, you’re envisaging an activity that only addresses state misdeeds? But that would hardly deliver reconciliation.

    That said, there is a debate to be had about governance and oversight of security services. It has started, and the dodgy dossier incident has shown part of it. But there is no plausible oversight regime that would prevent the security services from going about their lawful business. So I’m not convinced that the stakes for the security services are as high as you suggest.