“Failure to deal with the past is the Achilles’ Heel of the current arrangement”

Haunted is a good word for the core subject of Robin Wilson’s op ed in the Belfast Telegraph today. The past haunts all the players to one degree or another. He echoes DPP Barra McGrory’s concern that treating all matters via the judicial route is not the most desirable means of moving forward.

As Tim Garton Ash has noted, there has been no catharsis of victory:

…the new anti-Jacobin model of revolution, with its surreal encounters of former prisoners and their former jailers and torturers, requires painful, morally distasteful compromise. There is no great moment of revolutionary catharsis. The line between bad past and good future is necessarily blurred. This is what the anthropologist Ernest Gellner, referring to the velvet revolution in his native Czechoslovakia, called “the price of velvet”.

Because that is so, the problem of the past comes back to haunt you.

Most of the recent headlines around the past have focused on campaigns by relatives to get justice for the killing of their loved ones over Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy and the bombing of McGurk’s Bar. But the focus now may be shifting towards the PSNI’s own investigation of the past.

Wilson notes that there are a number of fairly high profile cases in the pipeline:

The HET is going through each death since the Troubles began in chronological order. It will eventually get to 1986 and the IRA killing of the alleged informer Frank Hegarty in Derry, to 1987 and the Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen and to 1990 and the death of the so-called ‘human bomb’ Patsy Gillespie and five soldiers at a checkpoint at Coshquin in Co Londonderry.

The name which links these three cases is McGuinness. Now deputy First Minister at Stormont, and having formed half of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ with Ian Paisley, he claims to have left the IRA in 1974.

In 1990 as the editor of Fortnight magazine, I interviewed him in his office in Derry for an article on the thinking of the IRA in the aftermath of its assassination of the high-profile Conservative Right-winger Ian Gow.

And he notes that the evidence they unearth (which will be released to families of the victims) may have problematic consequences for those current players:

The implication was that the Government had to negotiate with the IRA, having failed to suppress it and so there was to be official silence on paramilitary crimes.

It might have been hoped in London there could be silence, too, on state violence, but public pressure from the families of those murdered prevented that Bloody Sunday.

To comply with today’s international norms, those guilty of war crimes, from whatever quarter, should have faced prosecution, not been given immunity. And the evidence on Adams and McGuinness, as it emerges, will be explosive.

At the same time, it will be hard for the prime minister to keep resisting an inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane, murdered by the UDA, but with the collusion of the shadowy Force Research Unit (FRU) within the Army.

If the weak link in the 1974 power-sharing experiment was the ill-conceived Council of Ireland, failure to deal with the past is the Achilles’ Heel of the current arrangement at Stormont.

The clock is ticking.

Which may go some way to explain the increasing references to the ‘dark side’ of policing in recent communications from Sinn Fein on their conditional support for ‘policing the past’.


  • tacapall

    I doubt very much whether any of the present leadership of Sinn Fein will be prosecuted for their involvement in the past conflict. They and RUC Special Branch officers and members of the British Army seem to enjoy the same privileges as the Queen, they cannot be charged in a court of law they are protected species. The cherry picking of the HET and PSNI in bringing charges against individuals of past crimes who were not connected to the security forces or those who are deemed anti Sinn Fein or anti peace process is simply pissing over us and telling us its raining. The biggest cover up of all is the ongoing trial of the Mount Vernon UVF, why are their special branch handlers not in court alongside them. Why have no charges been brought against all those Special Branch officers and senior PSNI officers who were involved in returning a browning pistol to the UDA that was later used in multiple murders. Why are those members of the parachute regiment who carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre still not charged even though the whole world knows now the victims were murdered. I could go on but the point is unless a general amnesty is given to everyone involved in the past conflict then the injustices of the past will always follow us in the future.

  • It is really only an achilles heel ……if people target it.
    If we know its a weakness then surely the best option is to stay clear of it.

    There is no way that former terrorists or counter terrorists would have signed up to the “current arrangement” if they had any prospect of going to jail. While there have been no public assurances, I think we can all assume that theres a nod and a wink. The explosive cases further down the line will be a very damp squib.
    We can already predict why Mr X or Captain Y or Chief Inspector Z will not be appearing in any court……too much time has elapsed, death of key witnesses, not in public interest and impossibility of a fair trial.

    There will be no court cases.
    And in 1998……we knew that.
    We were prepared to tolerate former terrorists having a minor and transitional role in the Peace Process.
    Unfortunately the former terrorists did not read the script.

    Now we can tear up the Agreement. Have another Referendum.
    Or start promising people that there WILL be charges against former terrorists and former counter terrorists but it just wont happen.

    If the “current” arrangement is actually worth preserving, then certainly the “failure to deal with the past” (a loaded term of course) is an achilles heel.
    “dealing with the past” is I would submit a bigger risk.
    Its MY agreement. And it belongs to my children and grandchildren. I would resist any attempt to tear it up……flawed as it is.
    But surely we knew that in 1998.

    Im pleased at the mention of Mrs Gillespie, widow of Patsy who spoke very eloquently of the night he was kidnapped and murdered along with others. She spoke with some other very impressive women at an event in the Black Box (??) in Hill Street (circa Sept 2011).
    But at the same event I heard someone quote a survey (and he has since made it public) that only about 20% of people really want this kind of Truth exercise.

  • Brian Walker

    There’s plenty to say about it all but we might first ask:

    Where does responsibility lie for taking dealing with the past the past forward?.

    If further legal process including holding new inquests is and perthaps trials are required, can a wider exploration of the past take place until iegal process is exhausted?

    Is it not the case that the main parties in London and Belfast are quietly opposed to exhaustive legal process?

    Although there are good arguments for pursuing as many cases as possible to the end, what are the likely consequences of not doing so? How would community relations be affected?

    In view of the likely fact that evidence of long ago will,. be unevenly accessible, is anything approaching all round justice deliverable?

    Would the interests of truth telling be served by a legislative decision not to prosecute scheduled offences committted before April 1998 ( the GFA?) .

  • The parties are indeed opposed to exhaustive legal process.
    So more importantly are the population of Norn Iron. Despite the best efforts of those who tell us that we “need” a process.

    I cant agree that the “truth” will be served by an amnesty. The nod and wink approach is the most creative piece of ambiguity that we have.
    The Black Box event in Sept 2011 was under the auspices of Platform for Change…….the brave women who told their story moved many in the middle class audience.
    Incredibly some people said that this was the first time they heard this kind of story.
    In fact people have been screaming about Bloody Sunday and Kingsmill for decades.
    It was fashionable not to listen to these stories.
    Now it is.
    This Truth process can do no real good for victims……and victims are not a single group.
    The only people who can benefit are the “listeners”…..a means to make their consciences feel better. “If only I had known”.
    Well frankly there can be no excuse for not knowing.
    This is just Voyeurism.

  • Mick Fealty

    It might Brian, although I think that may be more difficult politically to achieve now than it might have been in the past.

    The trouble is that many people believe there already was a pact of forgetting in place. Clearly there’s not.

    Garton Ash’s ‘anti Jacobin’ point is well observed though. Without a ‘cathartic victory’, a lot of frustrations are building in some quarters. We can see this ‘unfinished business’ being cued up for the judicial system in several ways.

    This has the potential to progress into a very ‘cold war’ indeed.

  • Brian Walker

    Tim Garton Ash is talking about the transition of the Poles, a mentally free people, from a native version of externally imposed totalitarianism. He is calling for a more deliberate learning of the lessons for the sake of the new democracy. But Northern Ireland is not like eastern Europe after 1989.

    Even if all sides of have not fully acknowledged past faults from unionism to republican insurgency, they are surely starting to live those lessons and they have plenty of instructors. And does anyone in their heart of hearts see any prospect of a major calling to account for Martin McGuinness, and hundreds if not thousands of lesser figures on both sides, even the marshalling of indictments without prosecutions?

    I admit I’m far from the action but I don’t share Robin Wilson’s progressive pessimism. Is it seriously being argued that there is a major upsurge of demands to renew the search for justice on both sides? How much has been stimulated by the new Attorney General and DPP? How if at all will this be picked up by the political establishment or will it burn itself out in more failures to find evidence and in disillusion and Claudy-like anger?

    Leaving legal process aside, no doubt may people who lived through the Troubles would welcome it of the records of the police, the army and the security service were laid open and the paramilitaries confessed. But if there has been trouble over Boston College, just think of the furore legal and otherwise if t was proposed to open the files that point the finger to people still alive. Article 2 the right to life and Article 6 the right to a fair trial of the ECHR for a start.

    Such proposal as exists as I understand it, contemplates the possibility of a phased disclosure of cleared records under a 40 year rule – meaning that the 70s could have started now but the openness would not be complete until the 2030s.How many stories would be conclusive? Would those conclusions be accurate and command public confdence without names? Don’t many peole want to know who dunnit now?

    Is this what we want for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren? Maybe it’s the best that can be managed. But none of it has much to do with building a better society today.

  • FJH has a point. What sticks in the craw is not so much that people went unpunished – we all knew that was a risk when we voted Yes, and many on the No side pointed that out at the time. But for those unpunished actors to also be rewarded with power and prestige is a step too far. We were prepared to let Trimble and Hume play that role. But the chuckle brothers? The very people who were most responsible for the troubles, the wreckers who held out just long enough until they had their feet under the top table.

    Personal power bought at the price of 3000 lives, that’s the current agreement’s achilles heel.

  • cynic2

    Until recently SF has cleverly engineered a situation where the Brits were accountable through the drip drip of public enquiry and revived allegations.They have been adided in this by the lack of intellect, spine and interest in IUnionist politicians.

    But the worm is slowly turning. Smethwick has thrown up some interesting allegations about PIRA collusion with the British Securocrats. Where this will lead we dont yet know. The HET seems to be working honestly away – and it will be interesting to see where that leads in these and otehr cases.

    All it takes now is some of the Unionist Politicians (or even the SDLP) to take up the cause. The problem for the Unionist victims is that the DUP (increasingly the only unionist house in town) wont. Its nose is too firmly buried in the Stormont trough alongside SF and nothing must be done to destabilise the flow of money and pork …..sorry, of course I meant destabilise the fragile co-operation in the Executive

  • Id go slightly further than Andrew Gallagher.
    When we voted Yes in 1998, it was indeed on the understanding that the UUP & SDLP would inherit the Future and that the DUP and SF would be thrown enough crumbs to keep them onside.
    Gin and tonics all round.
    The UUP & SDLP politicians believed that too and were frankly complacent.
    We all thought that the nod and a wink approach to the Past was a price worth paying. Not looking at stuff too closely was a small price (??) to pay for have a stable future.
    We might now have a compromised future but it is stable and for those of us who have children and grandchildren growing up here, then it is enough.
    We can never bind the Future but Id suggest that there is no real prospect of violence ever being as bad again (certainly for decades). Tinkering with the GFA……….and I cant emphasise enough that the “Truth/Reconciliation lobby is NOT people-driven…….it is a concentrated lobby of a minority of people……influential people certainly but……a minority. There is no real appetite for it more generally. And the lobby irritatingly persists with ignoring the will of the people who many consider to be “lesser” people.

    Andrew Gallagher is right that we did not think that the unpunished actors would inherit power……or at least not the actors themselves but rather a newer generation.
    But while its reasonable to say that the Electorate in 2012 is different from the Electorate in 1998 (itself having had about four years of a process), not all of the 2012 Electorate are “new” voters.
    Even the electorate of 1998 has more quickly embraced the new regime than many of us thought.

    One of the problems is that “civic society” has not really caught up. The Electorate is disconnected from the “great and the good”, who previously held power..

    In 2011, 57% of the voters voted for DUP/SF and 38% voted SDLP/UUP/Green/AP.
    But does that reflect the great and the good?

    Do more people in QUB common rooms vote for the new order or the old order? Or among doctors, solicitors, teachers, accountants, priests/ministers, journalists?

    The unpopular campaign for “Truth” is at times little more than an attempt by those classes of people to claw back influence that they cannot get at the ballot box.
    Lets be honest, they were never that bothered about “Truth” before 1998.