Mr Hutchinson and Ethnic Thematics by Cillian McGrattan

This a guest post on Billy Hutchinson’s recent interview by Dr.Cillian McGrattan of the University of Ulster

When it comes to dealing with the past, the PUP have often been seen as one of the more upfront political parties – that is, less inclined to indulge in ideological double-think, smug condescension or obfuscation about deeds, dates and motives.

Billy Hutchinson’s Newsletter interview in which he claims that while he ‘wouldn’t try to justify’ his killing of two Catholics, ‘we’re not in a united Ireland’, is representative of that tradition. As such, they should be taken seriously. Read within that tradition they are unsurprising – they are frank, callous and brutal. Of course, they are also self-pitying, deluded and machismo (though perhaps this latter element is deliberate, with an eye to the more militant section of the PUP’s support base). Overall, they reflect the loyalist narrative of the peace being a victory of the IRA through a long, bloody war of attrition and self-sacrifice.

But Mr Hutchinson’s remarks resonate at other levels.

For example, I would expect that the families of his victims and others would find them hard to stomach. I would expect that the interview is potentially retraumatizing and, as such, gives rise, once again, to questions regarding the role of political elites in society.

In this regard, the interview resonates at the level of designing policy to work through the past. It reveals the shallowness of the Haass/O’Sullivan emphasis on acts of acknowledgement and the vacuity of elements of the storytelling movement, which forms the basis of the work of many non-governmental organizations in Northern Ireland.

At this level, the interview echoes Martin McGuinness’s recent Al-Jazeera performance, where the Deputy First Minster resisted calls to admit how many soldiers he killed. Mr McGuinness averred that any confession would be represented as boasting.

Given Sinn Féin’s support for truth recovery, Mr McGuinness’s reticence looks, again, like policy incoherence. But taken together with Mr Hutchinson’s openness, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that any process that valorizes stories of perpetrators’ grief and suffering will work to foreclose accountability, to work against what Anthony McIntyre has described as the justice of revelation.

The lesson that could be drawn from the two interviews is the need to recalibrate truth recovery away from story-telling and pre-ordained narratives (what Haass/O’Sullivan described as thematic recovery). For, to emphasise my point about Mr Hutchinson’s consistency: why should he give any narrative but the one that justifies his actions (or, perhaps, put in other words, the themes that send him to sleep at night)?

The political effect however is clear: It reproduces received wisdom in a cruel and crude fashion. Basing policy on thematics will only give rise to more of this kind of defensive, myopic view of the past – which, given the abhorrence that has been voiced in reaction to Mr Hutchinson, is one that will not command the support of the general public.

The interviews by Mr Hutchinson and Mr McGuinness ought to be taken seriously because they reveal that the thematic approach is wrong-headed and ethnic. An alternative is to recalibrate how we approach the past away from storytelling and away from perpetrators but instead to concentrate on the specificity of what happened to victims of political violence and to contextualize that against the available historical evidence. Haass/O’Sullivan opened the door to such a measure in the historical timelines group. I would suggest that when the parties decide to revisit the proposals they keep in mind the limitations that the Hutchinson/McGuinness interventions have revealed.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs