Reconciliation without truth is the new game in town. But will anyone play?

Steven McCaffrey reports on a new proposals from Mitchel McLaughlin, in which dealing with the past he suggests be detached from the idea of truth:

The party’s Mitchel Mclaughlin said republicans would prefer a South African style `truth and reconciliation’ commission, but now accepted that splitting the two elements into a twin-track process could help deliver swifter progress on reconciliation, given the deadlock on the past.

A prominent victims’ group however said that putting reconciliation before establishing the facts of what happened during the conflict allowed the guilty to escape scrutiny, and was “a byword for impunity”.

Mr McLaughlin said his comments linked back to calls by Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney for greater efforts to heal divisions between nationalists and unionists.

Republicans have been criticised in the past for their handling of the IRA’s history, but Mr McLaughlin claimed it was the British government which was blocking progress by refusing to allow an examination of the state’s role in violence.

Sinn Féin’s official position has long been supportive of a `truth and reconciliation’ process, but Mr McLaughlin said today: “As long as they remain a binary process, then one can’t go forward without the other.

“There are too many things that we could do that aren’t being addressed.”

He said he was not giving up on the search for truth about the past, but envisaged a twin-track process: “Two parallel processes, but one clearly able to move forward at a faster rate than the other.”

You don’t have to have a fixed position on Northern Irish politics to see the problem with the idea of cracking this particular binary. As Jerry Fodor in the TLS wrote a few years back:

Go ahead: try to build a theory of mental or linguistic representation without it [the semantic concept of truth]; I’ll bet you’ll find that you can’t. The consequence is that, pretty inevitably, philosophers who claim they can dispense with a robust notion of truth are required also to claim that they can do without robust notions of mental and linguistic representation; hence without the sort of common-sense psychological explanations that attribute what people do and say to the contents of their beliefs and desires.

All lot of people died in the troubles. Not all of their families want the same things. For some the truth is critical, for others the peace (along with a modicum of civility) we have is enough. There’s been a temptation to commodify the process of reconciling the wider public to a low level war that impacted heavily on some communities and barely at all on others.

…a death rate by ward was calculated and a concentration of deaths was found in Belfast, with only 15 of the 57 highest ranking wards outside the Belfast area. Derry Londonderry and Armagh account for most of the remaining wards.

It’s hardly surprising the most insistent demands for truth about what happened in the past arise from those areas which took the most devastating impacts of the troubles. It seems unlikely any of those who have committed many years. As McCaffrey notes in a second piece:

Victims’ groups have already noted Sinn Féin’s shift in language following speeches by the party’s chairman Declan Kearney which stepped-up the focus on the need for “reconciliation”.

The group Relatives for Justice says putting reconciliation before truth makes no sense: “It is like putting the roof on a house, before building the walls.”

Quite. Actually, the main problem with dispensing with the truth is that no one else has any means to check what anyone in power says. We are pretty close to that with no means to check the double and triple accounting of the DFP.

As that old wired haired German physicist is often quoted as saying “anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty