When exactly do we start listening to all victims and can the past ever become a ‘dead letter’?

‘That’s it, we’ve had our fun,’
The leader said to Kate, Pat’s job is done,
He’ll soon be home.’ But that was not the truth.

Pity for the Wicked, Brian Lynch             

Noel Whelan clearly ‘gets’ the pragmatic reasons (even over five years £190 million is a lot of money) why it might be better to forgo further pursuit of justice for pre Belfast Agreement crimes, but he also nails one reason the political classes jumped to such a great height in unison at the mere raising of the issue:

Larkin has been criticised for not discussing his views in advance with the Executive or with victim groups and for not waiting for the Haass process to conclude. These criticisms are a distraction from the central issue.

It seems in Northern Ireland there will always be some process or some future report people will say should be awaited. There is never an easy time to talk about these issues without treading on the sensitivities of victims. Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, both very sensitive men, learned this when their report was published nearly five years ago. It was finalised after months of careful consideration and consultation but still generated controversy.

Eames and Bradley proposed a commission to probe unresolved cases followed by appropriate remembrance, by amnesty and accompanied by a notional compensation to all victims. None of these has been advanced. Politicians and policymakers simply ignored their report.

Larkin has called the politicians in Northern Ireland and the London and Dublin governments on their failure to agree a comprehensive process around dealing with the past. Their new found unity in response to his suggested solution should be channelled to agreeing and implementing meaningful proposals of their own. [emphasis added]

Ian Parsley highlights why any such solution is unlikely to arise from a political system which (post St Andrews Agreement) has succeeded in nothing quite so well as helping politicians to tie each others hands, or at the very least give them that oh so easy get out clause for doing nothing.

As a first step, what we all have to understand – and “Progressives” more than any – is that to manage any change process is complicated and controversial, and even more so when it is one as painful to many as Northern Ireland’s. First, we have to make the case that change is necessary; then we have to outline the change we seek; and then we have to work out how, as a whole, Northern Ireland can achieve it.

I have no idea how we go about this – if I did, I would share it on this forum! The only thing I am sure of is that what we are currently doing is not working, largely because we think of it in too simplistic terms and because we want politicians to lead the process when they have no motivation to do so. In fact, it is a complex and sensitive route and will require leadership from civic society, who have a greater stake in navigating it.

Meanwhile, we should be exceptionally wary of anyone, from any side (including the broadly “Progressive” one), offering an apparently simple approach to what is a genuinely difficult, testing and multi-faceted issue. [Emphasis added]

Austin Stack, son of Brian Stack who was killed by the IRA in 1983 told the Irish Independent:

Any process must be led by the victims, not by politicians and lawmakers. I spoke to GerryAdams just last week and I told him there can be no amnesty. What we do need is a truth commission based on restorative justice. There cannot be a blanket amnesty. I was shocked and dismayed that someone wants to propel victims into a permanent vacuum where they would never get to the truth.

As Brian Rowan pointed out on RTE’s The Week in Politics (segment starts at 41 mins), all of this is way too complex for Haass to deliver on in the short term. Meanwhile on This Week (MP3 file), it becomes obvious just how difficult it will be deliver when the likes of MRF featured in last week’s Panorama have already had their files destroyed.

The real pain suffered by many victims of the Troubles, whether killed by Paratroops in Derry, by loyalist death squads or in an IRA no warning bomb is not simply the grief or the bloody minded senselessness of it all. Rather it was that they were lied to and lied about to wider society.

The crux of our existential problem is that some of those lies now underpin the very peace process and the strangely insular system it begat.

As Brian has noted:

It is a cruel deception on victims to keep banging on about “justice” in the high sounding manner of those who wallow in self deception and infinitely prefer the shadow to the substance and call it “principle”.

I also agree with Anne Cadwallader (MP3) when she says that the primary claim that many victims want to make falls far short of such far reaching “justice”. Marian Finucane’s interview with Michael and Agnes McConville (33 mins) is well worth setting the time aside to listen to in this regard.

The paradox is that Northern Ireland remains, at this stage, a low trust society. And as with many such societies as individuals we want the government to make it all better by regulating us into some new form of better society, and make all the bad stuff from the past just go away.

The purpose of a deliberately weakened administration was to make partnership the only viable means of making things work in Northern Ireland. Instead our political class has struggled to forge a partnership they can sell to their own bases. Compromise remains a dirty word, and trust is spare.

Professor John Brewer has one of a number of interesting contributions over at Eamonn’s blog. He is similarly sceptical of the likelihood of success of a deluge of claims currently being driven through the court system:

Who gains from the myth that truth and justice are deliverable? This is in the light of the lawyers who benefit from large legal fees, politicians who use victims as footballs, and celebrity victims support groups who would be without a raison d’étre.

Are victims being lied to and deceived? It is implied that victims are being deceived by those with something to hide, but are they also being deceived by politicians, lawyers and celebrity victim support groups in being told that justice and truth are deliverable when they’re not or only imperfectly so.

Martin McGuinness in an interview screened in a documentary due to air on TV3 tonight, notes:

I’m very reluctant to say anything that would destabilise the present or the future. There is any amount of negative elements out there that would use anything that I say in this interview against the process – I’m not going to give them that luxury.

Quite. How much do we really want or need to know about what the deputy First Minister got up to during his war? And how far is it safe to dig?

Our default ‘decision’ (because it’s been left to the discretion, capacity and motivations of various individuals and groups) has largely been to shove the police and a few dissenters into the judicial mill, and let politicians face the not entirely toothless court of public opinion.

Those queuing and waiting patiently may be sincerely optimistic about their chances of finding out the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Without some sort of amnesty to protect the perpetrators, there is little likelihood of progress. Yet with one, they have no guarantees either.

Where do the questions stop? For some of the Bloody Sunday families, the recognition by the state of the guilt of the state was enough. Others want prosecutions.

As we noted in A Long Peace more than ten years ago turning to the future does not mean burying the past. But nor is it about grandiose gestures, or sudden cures. It requires more modesty and greater patience. To quote Umberto Eco from that time:

‘Universal peace is like the desire for immortality: so difficult to achieve that religions promise immortality not before but after death. However, a small peace is like the act of a doctor who cures a wound: not a promise of immortality, but at least a way to postpone death.’

But as Peter Preston gloomily predicted back in 2007, what’s largely been at play here is a “war of survival and truth, in their minds, waged across a canyon of distrust. The moderates of history, the ones who stood against violence and won Nobel prizes, didn’t win”.

In this febrile quest for partial ‘truth’ about our past (in which all our futures are left to fend for themselves) are we sure we can handle it?

“You say there’s nothing that you know for sure? What about whether you have a nose? No? But what’s that thing just south of your eyes and north of your mouth? And what’s holding your glasses up?”

Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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