Haass Talks: Any comprehensive truth recovery must be realistic about what can be achieved…

It’s hard to figure what role Richard Haass sees for himself, but I’ve heard it described as a figleaf for OFMdFM to sell themselves at the next election, and as a think in, with the purpose of helping the Executive recalibrate itself around the intractable issues of the last few years.

There have been many calls, not least from the Bradley Eames commission, for some kind of comprehensive means of dealing with the legacy of the troubles. Interestingly Henry McDonald picks up this passage from Gerry Adams’ interview with Will Crawley on Sunday Sequence:

Commenting on a highly acclaimed documentary broadcast last week, which included a tape recording from the late IRA Belfast commander Brendan Hughes claiming that Adams gave the order, the Sinn Féin leader told Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme:

“Arguably, I suppose, every single victim of the conflict would deserve a programme such as that. But in this case I think it showed up the cruelty and the horror of war, even a low-intensity war such as the one that occurred in our part of the island.”

Arguably, that’s true. Although Mr Adams can also rest assured that it won’t happen. It is the reverberative consequences of his own alleged attachment to that particular killing which enabled the substantial drawdown of resources time and money to make such compelling programme.

The question of the past and who gets their story told and who doesn’t is a genuinely perplexing one (not least when you witness the partisan abuse handed out to the ‘wrong sort of victim’ on Twitter).

Issues arise haphazardly, and invariably open old wounds that are not easy to close and which have an effect of re-exposing the body politic to the traumas of past conflict. It also exposes current players to the accusation that they lied for the sake of political expediency.

In the business of truth recovery there are many disparate players. The Pat Finucane Centre is good example of a smart if highly partial lobby group, which does important work in looking for specific answers from the state over its actions during the troubles.

It has helped some families to piece together the truth about victims of state violence including the case of Christopher Quinn who shot dead during a gun battle at Unity Flats in 1971, and that of murder of 76 year old Roseann Mallon.

The problem with implementation of a comprehensive politics based solution is that when all is said and done, none of the major parties are willing to play ball. And lobby groups like the PFC are understandably interested only in helping a particular set of victims.

The adversarial court system often grinds out more questions than results. Cagey defensiveness and nondisclosure is the prefered stratagem of both sides. High Court Judge Mr Justice Weir told MOD lawyers during the Mallon inquest:

You should put your cards face up, otherwise people imagine things are hidden underneath them.

This is perhaps why most of the stories which do emerge and grab the headlines invariably have a keen political edge to them.

The current HET process is also partial (since it can only access what the state already ‘knows’). and open to lobbying by interested organisations. Nor does it have the support of all political parties in Stormont.

Worst of all it raises expectations in victim’s families it can rarely fulfill.

McDonald again:

Danny Toland, whose father John was shot dead by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in 1976, said: “The murder of my father was investigated by the historical enquiries team (HET), but were were left with more questions than answers, particularly around the extent of collusion which took place between the UDA and the security forces, which the HET could only say was ‘likely’.”

Toland said that what was needed was a more independent means of investigating all past cases where there are now outstanding questions. Alex Bunting, who was badly injured in an IRA booby trap car bomb in 1991, said: “No one wants to listen – especially within politics.”

Any attempt to recover truth on a more comprehensive basis would need first of all to dial down expectations of what it can achieve. It might set out to explore the subjective experience of many diverse individuals, rather than making claims objectivity it cannot stand over.

It certainly should be infinitely scaleable, reaching out to the families of deceased victims, and beyond to capture the lived experience of those in broader society affected by the troubles, helping to position it beyond the manipulative reach of interested players.

It ought not try to blunt the proper working of the judicial system. People will continue to want to fight their own causes, and not be cast into silence just because it is politically inconvenient for their controversies to be heard in public.

It even might take a lead from one of the most honourable projects to come out of the post troubles era, Lost Lives and build on simple story telling.

The critical events of the last four decades deserve to be told in the full, various and contradicting voices of those affected by it. And not just those with the full benefit of their own political megaphone.

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