Memo to Richard Haass: Greater openness in dealing with the past is long overdue

This call for a swift cross border public inquiry into the Omagh bombing by the British ambassador to Dublin at the time carries weight.  But enough to succeed?

“Material which the families presented to the British and Irish governments over a year ago, so far without response, suggests failings in MI5, the Garda and the FBI.”

Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern made clear no stone would be left unturned in the search for the perpetrators. This hollow promise must be honoured.

Such an inquiry would be a breakthrough and would not threaten the stability of the GFA. But decisions by the Secretary of State to oppose FOI requests for disclosure of inquest evidence in old cases may not on the face of it augur well for a new era of transparency. The latest case reported by the Detail in which an injunction against disclosure was granted in private after midnight, suggests official panic.

 HET told PRONI that it was: “currently in the very early stages of this (McAdorey) review and therefore it will be a considerable time before a conclusion will be reached. It would therefore not be in the public interest to release any information from the inquest file at this stage.”

According to the report  similar FOI requests for disclosure went against the advice of the Attorney General John Larkin.  These actions appear to put further pressure on the HET, after the report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary  recommending the  unit’s suspension for unequal  handling of paramilitary and Army offences.

But hold on. Was this a stunt by the SF Dcal minister Carál Ní Chuilín  who is  apparently able to authorise disclosure of public documents of this kind?

The BBC report by Mark Devonport  suggests narrower grounds for the injunction; that insufficient consideration  was given by Ms Ní Chuilín  for redacting ( blacking  out)  information that could identify  people concerned.

Justice minister David Ford’s  comment:

I’m extremely disappointed that she doesn’t seem to have taken any advice from my department, or the police, and has gone ahead and issued those documents.

“At this stage it is unclear exactly what redaction she applied.”

However if restriction even with safeguards is to be a blanket trend , it suggests that the British government will oppose much openness  at the  Haass committee over dealing with the past.  As is usual with such murky business we have a long way to go before we reach clarity.

It is open to the British government which is still responsible for “national security “ (including  most of the  residue of the Troubles),  to devise a strategy of greater openness  in consultation with law officers.  This single incident of an injunction granted in virtual secrecy at dead of night  shows what a can of worms dealing with the past can be . It is high time time that a strategy with clear rules was set, something better than the shadow war of attrition that is going on now .The British government may be mistaken if they believe that stonewalling case by case will wear campaigners down until the residues of the past finally  go away.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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