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.

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London