Truth or justice: Highly unlikely that most us will ever have either…

Riffing of Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, Seamus comes up with an argument you sense has been much talked about under wraps but which no one has the political strength (rather than confidence) to ask for:

The only legitimate way to end yet more years of speculation and anguish for the McConville family is for the governments of Ireland and Britain to agree a general amnesty that will allow all participants to the conflict, willing or otherwise, to give truthful testimonies free of fear or repercussion. Only then will we learn the truth about Jean McConville. Or about Gerry Adams.

That’s not far from what the now uncharacteristically silent AG for Northern Ireland was arguing for before the Sweeney judgement…

There’s just one flaw with it, and it’s quite a big one. Seamus is presuming that prosecution is the former combatants only concern regarding a full account of the truth of what they did in the war.

The far greater danger is the constant exposure to the truth of the long path northern revolutionary republicanism took to finally embrace politics.

To paraphrase the first Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck, ‘to retain respect for sausages and politics, one must not watch them in the making’.

The possibility of substantial truth emerging in a such a controversial manner and where the contemporary political stakes are so high, looks like a beaten docken before the dog even comes onto the track.

Of course, in literature we have already been there (review by Joseph O’Connor), and if it were done properly, ie with the victims truly in mind, the drip, drip, drip of horrendous detail would have disaterous political results for former combatants.

Which is one reason why they, sensibly from their point of view, would never agree to put their own heads in such a collective noose.

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  • Morpheus

    Justice for most of the families will never happen, the lack of evidence, the passage of time and the death of perpetrators will mean that most cases will not see the inside of a courtroom. Waiting for republicans, loyalist and state agents to voluntarily come forward to hold their hands up to their crimes is futile and preventing the healing process. By all means we should be investigating all cases to the nth degree and bringing convictions when possible but in the meantime I think the Governments will wait for suspects to die off before giving out large-scale amnesties.

  • megatron

    Why let perfect get in the way of better?

    If there is an amnesty there will be some downturn in future convictions and some upturn in voluntary truth telling.

    We dont really know the extent of either change as they are both based on unknowable future. I think it is fair to speculate at this stage that the rate of future convictions will be very small.

    So the real question is would the extra amount of truth (definitely not the full truth) be worth a general amnesty? I think it would. Society should decide but it should do so based on a realistic assessement of level of future convictions and level of future truth telling possible.

  • Mick Fealty

    How is it better though? And better for whom? The paras, the Provos, the UVF, the SAS, former members of Loyalist death squads? If that’s what we want, then fine.

    But let’s not pretend that we won’t have to shaft the victims to do it in a deliberate, democratic and open handed way?

  • Son of Strongbow

    Both Saville and Smithwick gave insights into the take-up of ‘truth telling’ opportunities.

    In both cases the value of the ‘truth’ delivered by some was debatable.

    The case of the so-called ‘Disappeared’ also shows that even with immunity in place the truth will not out.

    In the same vein even oversight did not prevent ‘truthful’ decommissioning allowing ‘put beyond use’ PIRA weaponry being taken up by others.

    ‘Truth’ is a slippery customer. In courts it requires corroboration from other sources rather than an individual’s, perhaps self-serving, reminiscences. In that regard ‘State actors’ coming from a record-rich environment would be more honestly tested in any formal process.

    The ‘Boston Tapes’ saga further demonstrates that one man’s ‘truth’ is another’s political point scoring.

    Prosecutions may come dripping slow (and if dirty little deals such as the ‘OTR’ scheme persist then not at all) but prosecutions are more acceptable than embarking on a fantasy ‘truth and reconciliation’ process.

  • megatron

    Well society has to decide would some truth be better than a small number of convictions. I think it would be. Why do you think it wouldn’t?

    Not sure why anyone has to be shafted and cant see how that word is helpful for a reasoned debate.

    What exactly is the shafting part of this anyway? Is it the principle of an amnesty or the actual lack of future convictions as a result of the amnesty? Do you know?

  • BarneyT

    Too much has happened to ever see an end to the convictions, trials, inquiries…and the volume will ensure that probability plays a part in ensuring a variety of outcomes. The system will collapse…and the needs wont be addressed.

    I do look at the crimes that don’t fit into the theatre of war and think, great, you”ll get whats coming to you…but there is too much anger and hatred inspiring those what want justice…and due to that, a failed trial or perceived lack of justice will fuel the fire….and they’ll take it into their own hands…and the saga rolls on

    we need an amesty…as painful as it might be to never to get the result you want. Its a hard path to take, but a necessary one.

  • @Mick, Megatron, Morpheus,

    Any “confessions” would be subject to the same going over by both the PSNI, HET, etc. and historians that politicians, historians and others are exposed to. This would mean that organizational and/or individual responsibility for certain murders could be established with possibly motive as well.

    We have to weigh the interests of the victims versus those of the historians and of society in general when making policy in this regard. Most people will probably prioritize the interests of the victims over those of the historians.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think this is an honest observation as far it goes Barney…

    “there is too much anger and hatred inspiring those what want justice…”

    So on the basis that the victims are too angry they must be denied justice? I think I know what you mean, but in itself it’s insufficient.

  • megatron

    Why do we talk about denying or granting justice like it is somehow in our gift? This bizarre assumption is the wrong place to start this conversation.

  • streetlegal

    Unfortunately the playing field will never be a level one. If we consider just two of the leading players – Messrs McGuinness and Adams – we can be confident – as indeed they are – that both individuals at an early stage of the peace process, faciltated by their contacts with British Intelligence, received assurances of immunity/extraordinary royal pardons. Hence the Adams offer to speak to the PSNI.

  • Some fair points, Mick. On the specific reluctance of some Republicans to air their dirty laundry for fear of electoral repercussions the argument is now between those who believe they can live with the slow but fading spikes of media interest versus those who believe that 24 months of an initial media feeding frenzy and then done and dusted is preferable. The latter think that taking the high moral ground, being seen as generous, truthful, etc. will yield long-term electoral rewards as well as putting the combatant forces, Irish and British, on an equal footing. TBH with 2016 looming on the horizon the latter argument becomes harder to sustain with electoral self-interest at play.

    However the general impression one gets in some circles is that something needs to be done. The arrest of Ivor Bell and some SF responses are playing very badly within the broad Republican community. Gaining a few extra 1s and 2s off FF and Labour votes in this part of the country may or may not be worth alienating many long-term activists/supporters elsewhere. The Time for Truth campaign illustrates the push for an alternative path.

  • notimetoshine

    In technical terms I suppose the general amnesty would be a mechanism for progress in local politics.


    This argument seems to ignore the emotional context of the issue, one which arguably is of greater importance than the political.

    The thought of a general amnesty would leave a horrible taste in the mouths of many people, not to mention the obvious betrayal of victims and their families.

    Any sort of amnesty such as was mentioned in the article would likely breed an undercurrent of long term resentment (arguably justifiable) which would fester and explode eventually creating another potentially insurmountable political crisis.

    I can’t see how any sort of amnesty could be carried out in the current political climate anyway, does anyone know of any polling data on what people think of amnesties OTRs and the past?

  • notimetoshine

    Also, could our local political landscape survive the outing of the dirty linen?

    As was quoted in the article about the making of politics and sausages, political machinations are inevitably going to be unpleasant to most peoples moral/ethical compasses. But with our unique set of circumstances including the less than legal past of some of our politicians, how dirty would the dirty linen get?

  • Framer

    An amnesty would have to be balanced with an end to HET, police ombudsman historic cases, public or private enquiries, inquests, civil suits, and criminal case reviews – indeed a complete cessation of all legacy litigation here, in GB, in Ireland and at international tribunals.
    A big ask for Republicanism and the legacy industry.

  • Politico68

    We already have the answers to the questions, or at least we think we do. We are so convinced that our specific targets are guilty that what we are looking for is merely some sort of process that will prove us correct. As it stands when it comes to jean mcconville and ballymurphy etc. We see no surprises popping up, just a clarification of out biased and naive assertions. I say naive because we would be stupid to think that in the process of discovery; statements, confessions and enquiries would most likely throw quite a few flaming curve balls into the mix. Revelations that had never seen the light of day previously could easily destabilize the political environment. Moreover, even if leaders and society at large were willing to live with it, you could be sure the media would whip up a frenzy for their own amusement if nothing else. If we are serious about getting closure, why not just do that. Close the whole thing down, every investigation, every theory, burn all documents relating to the past, anything that could incriminate the butcher, baker, soldier and spy. Start again? From scratch as if it never happened? Amnesiac nirvana.

  • notimetoshine


    Totally agree with you, but I’m just wondering you mentioned that an amnesty would have to include civil suits. I would imagine that would be very hard to do, while the government and powers that be could probably work something out regarding criminal cases and the reports, inquests etc. But the civil aspect I think might be very difficult (in terms of practicalities leaving moral issues aside) to legislate for. I have a funny feeling that you could end up with cases in Europe on human rights grounds if civil cases were prevented.

    On a more general note I personally just can’t see an amnesty being accepted by the wider public and victims themselves.

  • aquifer

    Can a place smaller than a large metropolitan council handle the truth all at once?

    HET reports to relatives, occasional prosecutions randomised by time and circumstance, revelations dripping from former participants, annual releases of government papers, and an increasing functional political process, may not be the worst mess we could make of this.

    Time can be a healer for many.

    There is plenty written down if people want to trawl the past.

  • babyface finlayson

    “Well society has to decide would some truth be better than a small number of convictions”
    I agree. But perhaps a particular amnesty rather than a general one, allowing victims families to have a say in their case. If they are agreeable then an amnesty could be offered perhaps for a limited time in that investigation.
    Families still wishing to pursue justice rather than merely truth should not have that option taken away from them, no matter how futile it may be.
    As you say if it leads to a few more families getting closure that is something. Not perfect, but better.

  • Politico68

    Sinn Fein surge in Red C poll today