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

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