PI Camp: Dealing With the Past

One of the most heated discussions at Saturday’s Political Innovation (Un)Conference was on ‘What role does the truth about the past have in future political innovation?’

The session was proposed by Ciarán MacAirt, who is involved with the Families Campaign for Truth for the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.

As ever in discussions about ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland, the conversation quickly became about particular events and the ‘truth’ of what happened in those particular events. And as ever, there was plenty of disagreement about what the ‘truth’ is.

I saw the pattern of conversation move in the same way when I attended public events during the Eames-Bradley consultation on dealing with the past.

These types of conversation, of course, inevitably prevent debate from moving on to questions about devising ‘political innovations’ for dealing with the past.

But the fact that such conversations do so quickly move to particular events illustrates for me at least one central ‘truth’ about Northern Ireland’s past: people want, and in some cases need, to talk about what happened here.

Forgetting about the past, simply drawing a line under it, isn’t a realistic option. People just aren’t going to forget.

I also was fascinated by how people in the room framed the conversation. For example, some people said that the only outcome of a process for dealing with the past would be prosecutions – i.e.  Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and even Ian Paisley would end up in jail. They said this was a major risk to political stability.

Now, if truth and reconciliation processes from around the world have demonstrated anything, it is that so-called truth commissions aren’t required to end in prosecutions. The most famous case is probably the ‘amnesty for truth’ provision in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Of course, the ‘justice’ of this aspect of the South African TRC has been much contested, and I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of that here. Rather, the point is that framing the discussion in terms of prosecutions unnecessarily limits our options. No post-conflict society will ever achieve perfect ‘justice’ and some hard decisions always have to be made around issues such as immunity, amnesty and prosecutions.

The Eames-Bradley Report actually contained what might be called ‘political innovations’ – a legacy commission and a reconciliation forum. These weren’t modelled exclusively on the South African TRC, rather they were informed by post-conflict transitions from around the world and by what the Consultative Group heard during their public consultations.

I was disappointed that our group didn’t get on to discussing in depth some of the Eames-Bradley recommendations, or other ideas about what could be done. There were a few suggestions, such as one person who advocated creating an archive where people could go and tell their ‘truth’ about what happened around particular events – on the condition that they also shared one thing their ‘side’ had done that they thought was wrong.

My fear is that the longer Northern Ireland goes without some sort of truth process, the easier it becomes for competing, contradictory and most likely inflammatory stories about the past to develop in our so-called ‘communities.’ People will not have the opportunity to hear the ‘other side’s’ perspective. Regardless of whether they agree with the alternative perspectives or not, it’s better to at least be aware of them rather than wilfully ignorant.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Lovely. Let’s start the ball rolling with El Beardo’s idea of ‘truth’.

  • Daphne Millar

    At the risk of going off topic, it might also be worth having a session on “What role does the truth about the present have in future political innovation?”
    Telling the truth would certainly BE an innovation as far as the current government is concerned. Gradually conceding something one lie at a time which everyone knew was happening seems a strange strategy.

  • anonymous

    South Africa is different from NI. Nearly all the atrocities were committed by the losing side, and pretty much everyone accepts that the cause of white rule is dead and gone forever.

    Maybe Alliance and the SDLP would come out clean from a truth commission in NI, but too many people and entities in power would stand to lose from thorough disclosure.

    There aren’t that many cases in NI where we don’t have pretty good ideas who was responsible for an atrocity. It’s enough to know that the British Army killed 14 unarmed people on Bloody Sunday; who cares which individual soldiers pulled the triggers? We know that the PIRA was responsible for the LeMon massacre; why does it matter now whether Adams or McGuinness ordered it? We know that most current unionist political leaders had paramilitary connections; is it important today whether they ever killed anyone? Let all the f*kers disclose the rest posthumously if they want to. Peace is too fragile to tear up all sides of the current political class over things that are past.

  • Couldn’t agree more Gladys

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Thank you for this.
    I think anyone attending that group discussion could not fail to be moved by Ciaráns fight for Truth and Justice. And indeed he set the tone for what I thought was a reasoned discussion where all contributors seemed anxious to balance every mention of one attrocity…..McGuirks for example with another Claudy or Ballymurphy or Darkley and so on.
    That was one of the most humanising aspects of it.
    One speaker (and Im not sure on the etiquette here of naming a man with a political profile) spoke again I thought movingly of his relationship to a RUC charity.
    There was little “whataboutery” except perhaps a highly individual contribution which seemed out of context.
    The notion that anyone will go to jail is just too far fetched. It wont happen.
    The final days of putting together the GFA were not about putting people sitting round the table into jail. It was about getting people (their “comrades”) out of jail.
    The “Justice” in that is of course open to debate. What is not in doubt is that all parties signed up to it. Once again Creative Ambiguity raises its head. People were promised they wont go to jail AND Justice was promised.
    That cant be reconciled without unravelling the entire process.
    The sheer impracticality of it all…….almost 40 years after an event or 30 or 20….or a mere 12 after GFA is important.Communities here have asked the victims of La Mon Hotel, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Newry RUC Station, Sean Grahams, Whitecross and so on……to doubly suffer thru seeing the criminals responsible released early or not jailed at all………so that we at least can live happily and watch our children & grandchildren grow in a different place.
    Fair? Well at least one person there thought it wasnt but the opportunity to “vote” on that was not taken. So we will never know the true feeling of that group.
    The forbearance of many victims families never ceases to amaze me. I was lucky with only (comparatively) little trauma. Yet I am at times rather embittered about comparatively minor incidents because I was involved. On the other hand my wife is much more forgiving of more serious crimes that affected her family.
    There is at least two templates of victimhood.And I wont condemn either.
    But the jail thing just seems silly.
    The police prepare a file. The CPS says (delete as applicable) “not in public interest” “no reasonable prospect of conviction”, “fair trial compromised by TV”, “appalling vista”, “witnesses deceased”
    If it goes to trial…….acquittal is inevitable.
    Rightly or wrongly.
    I hold that the whole Truth Commission thing is driven from above or outside. It intrigues journalists who want to recall events that they ignored when they witnessed them.
    Nobody really cares about Eames-Bradley except the chattering Overclass.
    History is best left to Historians.
    They have the skills to sift evidence produce a result.
    The best we could hope from a Truth Commission is a pious declaration that we were all wrong and all right.
    We all suffered.
    Why should we be willing to effectively split the difference……can we do that with WW2 (oh the Nazis were a wee bit right)……..of course not.
    Of course WW2 was won and lost and the Victor gets to write the History.
    So if we live in a situation which we have “resolved” by saying nobody won and nobody lost, then logic dictates that we should leave it alone.
    The treatment of History here is not good.
    There are for example Republican museums scattered thru the North and the Loyalists are catching up fast.
    Add in other “Victims” museums and I think I can live with that.
    In their own way they are more honest than the sanitised History that the Ilster Folk and Transport Museum or Ulster-American Folk Park offer the tourists and the school children on a day trip.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    “There were a few suggestions, such as one person who advocated creating an archive where people could go and tell their ‘truth’ about what happened around particular events – on the condition that they also shared one thing their ‘side’ had done that they thought was wrong”

    Just to flesh this out….as I was the person to whom you refer.
    My proposal is that the Archive should facilitate people telling TWO stories of an injustice suffered by their Community, provided there was a balance where they had to record ONE event committed by their community. There would also bea provision for anecdotal “blitz type humour” (as I described it on Saturday) so that future students could have a better picture of what happened.
    But all without judgemental.
    The Archive…..like the History itself belongs to the people. Keep Journalists and Academics at arms length. They should not be allowed ownership of it. This is our story……not theirs. They have no contribution to make.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    That jus brought me to Wikipedia. 🙁

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    …………which may have been the intention of course

  • anne warren

    “There are for example Republican museums scattered thru the North and the Loyalists are catching up fast”.

    I visited one of these Republican museums last summer. Very cramped premises for what they had to display. Don’t know how long it has been open or what strand of Republicanism it represents.

    In talking to one of the staff I was told Loyalists had visited for tips and ideas for setting up their own museums.

    So some sort of themmuns-youseuns dialogue and communication is ongoing.

    I suggested having R and L museums side by side for a sort of all round experience for visitors.

    No takers.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Indeed. The museums ….and I would add the “RUC” or regimental museums such as the one in Armagh or even the Somme Centre. obviously present one side…their story.

    But is that better or worse than a sanitised “middle version”?……such as the Belfast Bus Tours.
    Sadly I have to say there is “our story” and “their story”.
    There can never be an “our” story.

  • It was, but it wasn’t intended flippantly. Wikipedia is a very good rule-based way of recording information. It’d be ideal for the job.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I think most of the attrocities are already recorded there mostly with a label that the information is unreliable…which in a way is appropriate.
    Not sure exactly hw individual stories can be recorded as they have some kinda notoriety rule. They deleted my biography…….twice! (well ok …..neither of them were true and I was just testing them….but thats the problem with Wikipedia. You can edit any old stuff there….I know I have)

  • anne warren

    Am replying here to your comment below FJH because cannot enter below.
    “The NI ” story can only be written at present by laying out the separate threads. Maybe one day they will be twisted together to form “our ” story.

    Clearly all these “alternative ” Museums are peddling their own party line. All the more reason to put them side by side and let visitors balance the various viewpoints themselves. Otherwise they risk being visited only by people who support one particular point of view.
    Of course not all organisers might be up for the ensuing criticism, comments, discussion etc which would inevitably develop.

    Have never personally been on one of the “sanitised” middle version of the Belfast Bus Tours or any “unsanitised” version that might be available. However, sanitised Tours might show a the Troubles as seen through middle class eyes. To the best of my knowledge, most middle and upper middle class areas (Malone Road/ Upper Antrim Road in Belfast for example) were virtually undisturbed compared with working class areas. And have very different memories of the period which might “gel” with the Tours.

    I have visited the Ulster Folk/Transport Museum many times from childhood onwards and liked it.
    Is that indicative of anything?

  • SethS

    For me the debate showed why a commission is both essential and pointless The discussion showed a need to talk but the tit for tat trading of atrocities highlighted the fact that the “truth” never going to be agreed on.

  • Now I did enjoy listening to the differing views at PI Camp during this debate but I too had hoped for a wider discussion on the relevance of truth to present, if not future, society.

    I believe that it is so much more than seeking “closure” for fellow human beings (although this alone is moot) and I say that as a family campaigner. History informs the present and from it we learn our mores as a society. This echo of history was to the forefront of my mind when I published this paper: http://bit.ly/eGPrg7

    At PI Camp I wished to use military modus operandi as a case in point. Until we realise and admit that governments, never mind so-called “terrorists”, wilfully kill civilians and cover up the truth, we cannot evolve as a civilisation and state-sponsored terror will continue unabated. Afghanistan and Iraq are testimony to this.

    Single atrocities are only unimportant if we allow them to happen again and again. Truth therefore is the political innovation I wished to express! Nevertheless, some thought it had a shelf life though and should be consigned to the past. Lest we…

  • becky

    thats exactly what it is the past……………..yawn

  • Drumlins Rock

    FJH, where were you sitting? you can prob guess who I was didnt know you were there!
    I would agree with the archive idea as one dimension, and in some way try to seperate it from the other “unresolved issues” of the troubles, they also need dealt with but that has to be in a manner brings resoloution.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Well in part we accept that the losing side committed most attrocities in South Africa because th Truth Commission is part of the Victors (and of course the right side won in South Africa) Justice.
    And while youre right that after 40 years most people are not interested in the name of Soldier A, B or C in Derry on Bloody Sunday and we know the leadership of IRA at time of La Mon and we have a pretty good idea of the scale of loyalist involvement/collusion in murders.
    But the fact is that without a clear winner in our 30 year war……and a peace agreement based on all things to all people…..there is no way that a Truth Commision type Body has any role to play.
    With a clear winner……South Africa or World War Two was “easy”. But how long did it take to say the Katyn (sp) Forest was an attrocity (it took a revolution in the Russian State). How long will it take to recognise the grievous wrong (as at this stage only they officially see it) of Hiroshima. And of course how dare we say Bomber Harris was a war criminal. He was British for Gods sake.
    But History is a more hones judg of Harris than any Daily Mail editorial.

    But youre right……the Peace process is fragile. Those of us with a stake in this community …….children and grandchildren……are for the most part showing no enthusiasm for re-visiting a lot of this stuff?
    And its clear that a simple “judgement” could be issued in the vast majority of cases….without recourse to a Truth Commission.
    The Truth Commission idea is driven from “above” and “outside”. We already have Peace (imperfect). We already have a lot of Reconciliation (imperfect). But enough for most of us who do not want to be mere lab rats to be studied.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Drumlins Rock, To be honest I cant guess who you were. But I kinda went to the Event seeking a low profile and part of that was not to try and link faces to screen names. I was however intrigued by a kinda overview of who was there and who wasnt.
    And hope that one of these PI Camp type posts will be more general.
    But its interesting that today there are two stories featured on BBC News that have a “Truth” bearing….and of course on many other days I could have chosen different examples…..but an investigation into a Loughinisland incident and a Fermanagh incident are winding up it seems.

    There is unlikely to be…..for all the reasons Ive mentioned above any enthusiasm for bringing most incidents to court. The burden of criminal proof in incidents so many years later is just too great. Yet the notes of interviews, diaries, intelligence reports etc are certainly enough (and Im NOT talking specifically but generally) for “History”