Delay no longer: face up to the Past

While  unsurprisingly more tentative, it is some kind of vindication that the Victims Commissioners’ report isn’t so very different from the rejected efforts of  Eames- Bradley. True, it drops the wretched recognition payments in favour of victims’ needs assessments and suggests a timetable for what it quaintly calls a ” design process” to be completed by autumn of next year. The Executive parties mustn’t be let near the process they say. This is a task for the two governments consulting civil society and adopting a ” victims –centred” rather than a ” top down” approach.

There is the familiar confusion between the conflicting demands of justice, truth telling and reconciliation and the inevitable avoidance of a debate on moral equivalence.

The commissioners are naturally better at describing problems than solutions. As they say, there is a ” deep suspicion that opponents only want to excavate a truth with which they can manufacture ammunition for continuing the conflict.” Yet solutions must be victims- based.

But what special insight do victims necessarily possess, beyond that of their own loss and suffering? There is no victims’ consensus- how could there be? The needs of society as a whole are wider still.

In the report, there is an almost desperate hope that legal process has come to a dead end. Very well then: an expert team had better go in and excavate the closed cases of the Historical Enquiries Team to find out, and take in the classic reports on the Troubles, Stalker-Samson and Stevens, as well.

An examination of truth must include the army’s Ballymurphy killings of 1971 and the range of atrocities of ” iconic significance” to the unionist community, Tullyvallen, Darkley, Enniskillen, la Mon and the rest.

But why only those? And are we to be left to the randomness of the record?

There are hundreds of people alive who know precisely what they did. Can they be persuaded to talk on any terms? Is there a hint in the victim centred approach that some victims groups might be able to facilitate truth telling? It is hard to imagine that happening without a formal amnesty or at least Eames-Bradley’s “protected statements.” Without something along these lines truth telling is hobbled.

For the wider context, I recommend one of the seminal books by Peter Hart. In the preface he lists a set of questions, including:

When did the Irish revolution start and when did it end?

Why was the Irish revolution so violent?

What kind of people become terrorists?

Were the IRA terrorists?

Hart goes on to say:

Systematic information is available on every aspect of the revolution .. thousands of witness testimonies can be consulted and cross examined using the files of their organisations or those of their enemies.. These essays represent sixteen years work.”

The title of Peter Hart’s book is The IRA at War: 1916-1923. He finally finished this collection in 2003. Why did it take so long? As this review explains ( in pretty grim English):

 Hart’s work, as with Fitzpatrick’s, suggests that it was not availability of sources which retarded study. Inside Ireland the historicisation of the Revolution was problematised and impeded by the onset of violence north (and sometimes south) of the border. The full extent to which the recent civil war (1968-1998 )  acted as a disincentive to historical scholarship on the ‘Revolution’ is a question to be answered elsewhere. Nevertheless, of particular sensitivity, for obvious reasons, is the issue of revolutionary violence and its relationship to political legitimacy

Can we do it quicker than Hart and Co? While we are in a different situation now – regime change today is partial and shared and paramilitary records are I suppose scanty to say the least – there are lessons that can be learned. One is to face the reality of  limited and unpredictable outcomes. There can be no guarantee whatsoever that the process will aid reconciliation.

The other is practical; to begin assessment work on the files as soon as possible. The governments should also open an oral history project similar to the Bureau of Military History in Dublin. Some of it might build on the Boston Oral History Archive which was exploited so effectively by Ed Moloney for his Voices from the Grave, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine.

It is hard to see how this can take off without demonstrating that legal process has run its course. The State(s) should come clean. Let the review of the available records begin as soon as possible.

In the wider ” telling stories” or the writing of history, Hart’s own methodology bears repeating:

1. If you are analysing violence, begin with the victims. Look at all of them, not some preselected set. How many were defenceless? How many were noncombatants?

2. Motivational rhetoric and contemporary or after-the-fact justification counts as evidence but not as explanation. Look at behaviour instead. What people actually did or decided is what ultimately counts, not what they say they did. And do not be selective or episodic. Episodic history is false or at least incomplete history. Be systematic.

3. Be sceptical of all institutional or organised power. The state indeed, in the form of the United Kingdom, the Irish Provisional Government/Free State or Northern Ireland, but also parties claiming national or ethnic authority, insurgent groups claiming state power and – much neglected – newspapers and the interests behind them, and the major churches, all of which were political players.

4. Avoid pejorative labels. If you use them, apply them to behaviour, not to groups – and apply them to the same acts no matter who commits them.



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  • HeinzGuderian

    FFS…….the dirty little sectarian skirmish is OVER !! The Unionist people could not,would not,and will not be bombed into a UI !!

    WTF use is a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission,when some fall back on a ‘code of honour’ ??

    Take religion out of schools NOW !! Let the children be educated together. If we don’t,we will keep going round in ever decreasing circles !!!

    The past is like an open sore. Only time will heal it. Keep picking at it and it will fester. Time to draw the line………………..IT’S OVER !!!!!

  • Alias

    The purpose of a Truth Commission is to examine widespread human rights abuses by a regime after it is no longer in power (and consequently cannot set the terms under which it is to be examined) with the aim of enabling to society to learn whatever lessons it can from the experience so that it can avoid a repetition of it.

    As with Justice, Reconciliation and Truth, such commissions are not possible in a political environment where the regime remains in power and can set the terms of reference. In NI, the same state actors remain in place implementing the same policies and remain unaccountable for their actions. In the case of non-state and state-sponsored actors who organised the violence or created political careers out of it, these groups have been promoted to power within the state.

    In a context where those who are most responsible for creating victims are allowed to determine along with the security services and those who set the policies what remedy the state should provide to their/its victims it is self-evident that the remedy will be limited to a format that does not require the victimizers to be held accountable via a judicial process for their actions and which will not hold them accountable in any other tangible way, either.

    In other words, allowing the victimizers to determine what justice or truth their victims should receive is pre-designed to ensure they receive neither. The people who were not victims duly elected the victimizers to political office at the behest of the state that controlled the murder gangs and out of selfish sectarian interests, so those people now have a vested interest in promoting the on-going cover-up. It is does not serve their vanity or piety to recognise that they support members of sectarian murder gangs on the basis of elementary self-serving calculations such as “what can they do for me?” The whole process is just a cynical exercise in stringing the victims along while fully intending to shaft them from the start.

    The document itself is a self-contradicting mess. It deliberately can’t decide it its purpose address the victims or the non-victims and so it obfuscates them, e.g. to deliver justice for the victims or to promote some undefined concept of “peace and reconciliation” among the general population who could care less.

    Even though it favours reconciliation, it points out unwittingly that this purpose is redundant because the “eventual resolution [will occur in] some future period that most of this generation will not live to see.” And elsewhere it informs us that “the process of reconciliation takes generations to unfold.” In other words, you’ll all be reconciled only when you’re all dead. Fine, except that the absolute majority of NI’s population were not a victim of the state or the state-sponsored murder gangs, whereas most of those who were are to die without any form of justice for their loved ones or for their own injuries. They now have to be reconciled to a state wherein those who victimized them now hold power over them, having been duly rewarded for their violence.

  • Sam Flanagan

    That just about sums up the current situation nicely.

  • Alias

    What is occurring is that the emphasis is being firmly placed on ‘reconciliation’ between those social groups who were not victims of the murder gangs rather than placed on justice for those who were victims of the murder gangs. Those social groups were not engaged in a conflict and do not required reconciliation. 99% of the population did not join the sectarian murder gangs and were not involved in any violence other than as victims of the sub 1% who were members of the sectarian murder gangs. The violence therefore was organised and controlled by sectarian murder gangs and could not in any way be characterised as a civil war involving society at large. What is actually required is justice for the victims of the murder gangs targeting that sub 1% of vicious criminal thugs, and not reconciliation between the 99% of the population who were not involved in the violence and have nothing to be reconciled about. The emphasis is deliberately misplaced on reconciliation to take it off justice.

  • Barnshee

    .”If you are analysing violence, begin with the victims. Look at all of them, not some preselected set. How many were defenceless? How many were noncombatants?”

    Says it all

  • TheHorse

    You’re on a one sided rant Alias have you forgotten or just turned a blind eye to British and Loyalist security force involvement in a considerable number of cases of murder by those sectarian murder gangs on both sides. It seems everyone was directed by someone else so how far up the ladder of political authority does sectarianism dwell.

  • Brian Walker

    Surely it depends what your’e trying to achieve, doesn’t it?. A civilsed society will look after hurt and damaged people just as doctors will treat partients regardless. Hart argues for beginning with victims to clear away preconceptions and confront reality but he doesn’t end there. Going to victims first is only the beginning of his methodology.

  • Alias

    TheHorse, the point stands: so-called reconcilliation/truth/justice commissions only operate in a political context where the regime is no longer in power and cannot therefore set the terms of reference. That is not applicable in Northern Ireland where all of the principle actors who inflicted the violence (state, non-state, and state-sponsored) can set the terms of reference.

    In addition, blame cannot be attibuted to those culprits because to do so would damn those who control the state, and rather obviously undermine its authority. That would serve to make reconcilliation impossible just as allowing the culprits to set the terms of reference makes truth and justice impossible.

    So the process is not designed to do anything other than pay lip service to the victims of the state and its murder gangs.

  • Alias

    One other cynical function that it does have, however, is to continue the state-sponsored process of engineering the two seperate nations in that part of the UK into a new nation of Northern Irish. That might have some value since it is the nation of Northern Irish that actually has the right to self-determination, so this nation will need to be created if that part of the UK is to have any long-term prospect of eradicating the cause of its dysfunctional sectarianism, i.e. two nations competing with each other for control of one state. Whatever about the legitimacy of the state engineering cultural genocide against nations within a region of its territory, those two nations will need to be destroyed if the new nation is to be created and that region to operate without the dysfunction that has characterised it since its creation. But you’re looking at a camapign that will have to be organised over generations.

  • billy


    I agree, Heinz.

    So, rather than pick over the past, should unionists tell Gadaffi to keep his 2billion?

    You know, rather than go over the past again?