In learning from the past do honesty and comprehensiveness cancel each other out?

“There must be ghosts all over the country. They lie thick as grains of sand. And we’re all so horribly afraid of the light.”

 – Henrik Ibsen (1881)

So the past is a foreign place after all. Nowhere more-so than in Northern Ireland. The decision to ‘plant’ the G8 in Northern Ireland is testimony to the degree which things have calmed down in the twenty years since the ceasefires.

Still, we remain a battleground of sorts. There’s a steady stream of pressers emanating from SF and pro SF lobby groups about the SDLP’s participation in making Jim Allister’s #SpadBill law. The SDLP, for its part, seem to be pretending it’s not happening.

The trouble is, everyone says they want to talk about what they might do about the past. Yet no one wants to do anything about it. The document proposing forthcoming talks (subtitled learning from rather than dealing with the past?) does not offer new ground for possible future agreement.

This never ending game of “We’ll-show-ours-if-you’ll-show-yours (but only in front of an international body)” came to a clattering halt last week with Ann Travers’ intervention on Northern Ireland’s very own restaurant at the end of the universe.

She demonstrated that in having no agreed comprehensive and consistent approach to the past, insiderly understandings are fragile and highly vulnerable to disruption.

Last Saturday, Alasdair McDonnell argued that the past must be dealt with “in a comprehensive and honest way”. He further commended the Eames/Bradley proposals as “the most significant approach that we have seen towards dealing with the past”.

Hard to argue against that. But can a comprehensive approach ever deal with the other of McDonnell’s criteria, ie honesty? Or can any honest approach ever expect to be comprehensive?

The Belfast Agreement, was an agreement to start over again with institutions that whilst far from perfect at least had broad agreement across the island north and south. And as McDonnell also points out it  allowed for the early release of prisoners and supported the reintegration of prisoners into society.

In certain key aspects though, most ex prisoners who fall outside the political aegis of Sinn Fein enjoy far fewer privileges than those who do. Try getting a US visa for instance if you are Republican ex prisoner, but  no longer ‘in’ with the party? Or try keeping your job as check out operator at Asda, as a loyalist ex prisoner? That is an unlegislated hierarchy.

The recent citation of party membership in the case of John Downey and his description by Gerry Kelly as “a long-time supporter of the peace process” implies party membership carries with it an unnegotiated immunity from future prosecutions.

A hierarchy of victims also exists insofar as (as Alex Maskey pointed out on Nolan last year) every one of us has a different relation to each one of those who died and the circumstances in which they lived and died. The legislation which asserts there be no hierarchy merely governs the extent which support be extended to all those who have survived their own tragedies.

But the SpAdBill makes it clear that  unconditional support to all victims cannot be transposed into wiping out all forms of culpability for perpetrators.

It certainly ought not hold in the case of state forces.  The pursuit of truth by numerous relatives campaigns will, I suspect, continue whether there is an attempt at brokering a comprehensive deal or not, precisely because those families involved do not trust the state (or their own political leaders) to ante up the truth without a hell of a long term fight.

And, to be frank, it is hard to blame them.

The SpAdBill controversy demonstrates that the burden of the past does not fall upon the shoulders of all players in equal measure. The state (and their loyalist proxies) are certainly in the frame (though as the bill’s critics rightly point out, it does little or nothing in that regard).

Yet so too are the anti state forces who killed by far the largest proportions of both civilians and Catholics.

In lieu of a comprehensive agreement, the final arbitration of how soon and how we move on must somehow rest with the relatives of the victims. And that surely depends on how soon our political leaders are able to enlarge the shadow of the future?

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”

– Marcus Tullius Cicero

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  • megatron

    I think at this stage what is likely to happen is nothing. In 10 years time most of the leading actors will have left the stage and a scab will eventually form over the wound which wont be continually sore but will be vulnerable to getting accidentally scratched off.

  • megatron

    I dont think that is a bad outcome either.

  • I think that’s about right, megatron.

  • John Ó Néill

    I’ve been thinking about this recently and there is a much deeper well of issues here than the more recent phase of conflict in the north. If you go back to interviews from 1968 and 1969 older people make reference back to 1920-22, which may seem a long time ago now, but is not much further than 1968 is back from today. There is a yawning gap in historical research into the violence in Belfast (in particular) in 1920-22, when around 480-490 people were killed. Even though it obviously provides a significant backdrop to what happened in the 1960s, it has been largely left alone by professional historians (with a handful of honourable exceptions) and has only recently began to be re-visited in various guises (eg see a paper by Niall Cunningham here).

    Not discussing such violence is an extension of the political motivation behind the violence – it is meant as a deliberate act in itself. If the violence itself is intended to extract submission, albeit by coercion, the redaction of the violence from popular histories and public debate and discussion of it, its denial, and any consequences flowing from all that, are meant to perpetuate the same submissive behaviours. Hence, the British government spent hundreds of millions to avoid acknowledging what happened for decades after Bloody Sunday when the rest of the world knew straight away.

    In retrospect, an underlying flaw in the Good Friday Agreement is that it did not include clauses specifically requiring the British government to admit to its roles during the violence (ie decommissioning its weapons). Given the vast media coverage and literature around deaths caused by republicans in particular, it is hard to see what former members of the IRA, INLA etc might fear in terms of revelations. The key gaps here are in what flowed from the protocol agreed in July 1972 that operated so that security members did not face prosecution for their actions (and still apparently in force if Saville is anything to go by), and, in the interactions between the security force members and advisers and paramilitaries and their role in the direction of political violence and the carrying out of extra-judicial killings.

    In many respects there are remarkable similarities here between the violence in 1920-22 and since the late 1960s.

  • tacapall

    “In learning from the past do honesty and comprehensiveness cancel each other out”

    Obviously not when it comes to the British government and its trigger happy neanderthal soldiers –

    “Mossa Ali, a 53-year-old headteacher, held in custody in May 2003 and found dead within hours. The list of unlawful killings is endless. And there are hundreds of Iraqis’ cases before British courts in which allegations are made of egregious acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

    These terrible acts have occupied the attention of the courts for the last decade. A high court judgment in late May gives the UK a golden opportunity to make reparation and lead the world in imposing the rule of law wherever its state agents act abroad. This judgment involves more than 1,000 Iraqi cases of unlawful killings and acts of torture. It establishes that whenever UK personnel abroad have authority and control over others – and commit what might be acts of unlawful killing and torture – there must be an “inquisitorial process” in public into each case. There must also be public scrutiny of the systemic issues arising from these cases.

    Take, for example, the case of Huda, an eight-year-old girl in a yellow dress playing with her friends one sunlit morning in Basra. A British rifleman in a tank, apparently perceiving her to be a threat to force security, shot her dead without warning at close range”

  • mr x


    You must be joking. The US army complained the British in Basra didn’t have the stomach for anti-partisan operations.

  • mr x

    @John O’Neil

    As ever lots of stuff on Wikipedia especially about the McMahon murders. Seems like they may have had enemies on both sides.

  • mr x

    According to Wesley Johnston 226 Catholics and 157 Protestants were murdered in sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland between July 1920 and July 1922. Many were B Specials or IRA Volunteers so they would be soldiers killed on duty/

  • mr x

    If anyone is interested Dublin City University has a day-by-day account of all war-related murders in 1921. I’m just reading about November 24.Sean Montgomery of the IRA is named as killing 4 Protestants with a bomb while a spirit grocer John Kelly and his son Eugene were shot dead.Thomas Thompson a member of the Orange Order who attempted to give assistance was also killed in this attack.

  • tacapall

    Heres a good source from 1919 – 1922 if anyone is interested.

  • John Ó Néill

    mr x – thank you for illustrating the lack of knowledge of the 1920-22 period.

    There were 455-59 people killed between 1920 and July 1922 (depending on the particular source). I don’t have it in front of me, but I think Kieran Glennon in his From Pogrom to Civil War suggests that the numbers keeping going up until about October 1922 as people injured in earlier attacks succumbed and that a figure of around 480-90 is more accurate. Glennon includes detailed breakdowns on the various areas. There are a couple of sources that detail the individual deaths (the DCU source is very limited in actual detail) – G.B. Kenna’s Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogroms 1920-22 includes a lengthy list with a handful of omissions. The book was suppressed and the print run destroyed by the Catholic hierarchy on publication in 1922 (in case it derailed the Treaty debate): G.B. Kenna turned out to be a pseudonym or Fr Hassan of St Marys in Chapel Lane – a handful of copies survived and it was only reprinted in 1997. Joe Baker includes a much more detailed listing in The McMahon Family Murders published by the Glenravel Local History Project and includes a number of deaths omitted by Fr Hassan. (Obviously Parkinsons Unholy War and Eamon Phoenix have covered this period as well).
    There are also detailed accounts of individual actions collected during the 1940s from members of the IRB/Volunteers which became the Belfast Brigade of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. These are searchable via the Bureau of Military History’s website. Many of those who gave oral histories had served in the 3rd Northern Division and then followed Michael Collins into the pro-Treaty camp and the Free State army. They would be worth re-publishing and discussing in their own right as they also reflect some of the tensions between the pro-Treaty and Executive IRA in 1922 and later.
    There were only a handful of members of the IRA killed in Belfast between 1920 and July 1922. According to the roll of honour, they were Ned Trodden, Sean Gaynor, Sean O’Carroll, Seamus Ledlie, Freddie Fox, Murtagh McAstocker and Sean McCartney. The most significant proportion of those killed appear to be civilians, but due to the limited historical work done this has yet to be fully explored. There were large numbers of ex-servicemen available to attack/defend areas on both sides, and the oral histories collected from IRA members and contemporary documents clearly show that Collins and others were reluctant to authorise IRA operations in Belfast since Unionists would (a) carry out reprisals against civilians, and (b) paradoxically, then cite the violence as evidence of the sectarianism they faced in Belfast.

  • Reader

    John Ó Néill: G.B. Kenna turned out to be a pseudonym or Fr Hassan of St Marys in Chapel Lane
    Father Hassan – that name rings a bell. He was working for Michael Collins, wasn’t he? Double jobbing.

  • John Ó Néill

    You are close but he was only single jobbing. The book was a compilation of summaries of current events Collins had requested be sent periodically from Belfast and Hassan was considered as relatively neutral, and being in Chapel Lane, well placed to get the picture across the city (most trouble centred on Norh Queen Street-York Street, Carrick Hill, Ballymacarret, the Markets, the Bone and Lower Falls).

    Frank Crummey was the Head of Intelligence for the Belfast Brigade and supplied different information entirely to Collins.

  • tacapall

    (most trouble centred on Norh Queen Street-York Street, Carrick Hill, Ballymacarret, the Markets, the Bone and Lower Falls).

    Dont be forgetting sailortown John.

  • Mick Fealty


    Hassan’s account is valuable, not least because of the quotation of so much contemporary journalism and witness. He’s a veritable prototype blogger with a prodigious output that gets sharper and more detailed as he goes on.

    He documents in some detail the expulsion of Catholics (British ex servicemen amongst them) from the shipyard in July 1920 and terms this the beginning of the pogroms against Catholics in Belfast.

    The second episode he has starting on August 24, two days after Collins had had Inspector Swanzy assassinated in Lisburn. Odd that, even though the focus of the book is Belfast, Hassan makes no reference to that killing or the reprisals in Lisburn and Dromore and rural surroundings against Catholics.

    Instead, it’s the ‘frenzied bigotry of the majority of another creed’ that remains the focus of the book’s narrative. His fascinating log of calls to the fire brigade in the days after seem to have no reason to them (other than ‘Orange delinquencies’), when in fact they must have been copy cat attacks of the Lisburn debacle.

    There’s no index in my copy, but I think at no point does Collins cop for triggering the second bout of anti Catholic violence that summer.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick, I think that scope is due to Hassan ‘blogging’ from Belfast. Derry saw sporadic intense violence and there were deaths in Armagh and other places. None very well documented by later historians. I put a link to Hassan in above you can search the text through it (it has various formats). The Swanzy killing was attempted once (from Cork) without Belfast Brigade assistance. The potential for reprisals dominated IRA strategy in Belfast.

    Tacapall, my Granny was from Sailortown, by NQueenSt/York St, I meant to include from Vicky Barracks to the Docks out to Weaver St.

  • tacapall

    I sort of thought that John, my grandmother on my mothers side was one of those children injured in the Herbert St bomb. The sailortown facebook page is a great place to find historical articles and pictures, even news clippings from around 1920 onwards.

  • Mick Fealty

    I understand that. And these were obviously frightening times for Belfast Catholics, with outflows of Protestants from the south and west helping to hoke up tensions within the Ulster unionist population even further.

    Still it’s a fairly crucial ‘sin of omission’ that somewhat skews his narrative. Honest insofar as the facts he reports are sound, but hardly comprehensive?

  • Mick Fealty

    On the McMahon murders, I see the Minister for Social Development (unwisely in my view) blogged on the subject (x2 and

    You can get a vivid contemporary report here:… And this the house where it happened on Street View today:

  • tacapall

    Nelsons blogs, here’s Danny Morrisons response to Nelsons view of Sam Maguire.

  • Mick Fealty

    Given what happened in that very house in 1922, that graffito in 2013 is quite depressing…

  • Kieran Glennon

    Apologies for coming to this discussion very late, I only just stumbled across a reference to it on Google.

    In writing “From Pogrom to Civil War”, it seemed to me that before commenting on the IMPLICATIONS of what happened in Belfast from 1920-22, it was first necessary to define the exact EXTENT of the political violence. In trying to do that, it was soon clear that not only did different sources paint differing pictures of what happened but also that the sources were not in agreement with each other, which was odd in itself, given how few sources there are.

    Fr. Hassan’s 1922 pamphlet should be viewed as a polemic portraying the plight of Belfast nationalists rather than as a piece of objective journalism. Thus his list of 455 fatalities contains both sins of omission and sins of commission. On the one hand, he fails to include the protestant shipyard workers killed in the IRA bomb attacks on trams in November 1921, but on the other, he does include the death of an RIC Sgt Lucas, who died in hospital in Belfast but from wounds received in Fermanagh. He also included the death of one poor unfortunate wretch who died, not as a result of political violence, but when a wall fell on him during a thunderstorm; history doesn’t record whether it was a catholic wall or a protestant wall.

    Joe Baker’s list, in his pamphlet on the McMahon killings, seems to use Hassan’s list of fatalities as a starting point, but then adds others to it, such as the victims of the tram bombings. However, he imports Hassan’s errors into his own list of 480 deaths.

    Alan Parkinson, in “Belfast’s Unholy War”, uses contemporary newspapers as his main source material and thus has a more comprehensive tally of 485 deaths – but for some unaccountable reason, he overlooked just over a dozen killings.

    Other sources were by their nature incomplete. Both the nationalist and unionist press tended to focus more on deaths within their own communities, particularly in 1922, while the southern Provisional Government’s North East Boundary Bureau only came into existence after the Treaty and they were concerned almost exclusively with the deaths of nationalists.

    In compiling my figures, I adopted two rules of thumb. First, that an element of intent had to be present – thus, deaths arising from accidental discharges of weapons were excluded. Secondly, given that some sources shared common errors, I only included a death if it could be corroborated from at least three sources (Hassan, Baker, Parkinson, contemporary newspapers or the NEBB papers).

    Thus I arrived at a figure of 498 people killed in Belfast between July 1920 and October 1922 – I saw no reason to draw the line at July 1922, as Hassan had to in order to allow publication of his pamphlet the following month. Ten people died during August-September-October and the circumstances of their deaths were not notably different from those that preceded them, so although the violence had certainly diminished by that stage, it was not yet over.

    Sub-dividing that figure of 498 by area, and in terms of both who died and who did the killing, then seemed to be important as that offered an insight into what I described (with an obvious borrowing from Fr. Hassan) as “Facts and figures, myths and legends of the Belfast pogrom”.