Dealing with the past. Inquiries are over. The politicians must come clean. It’s time to stop paying lip service to victims.

You can’t say she’s not even handed . Theresa Villiers will not allow case reviews or inquiries into the Ballymurphy massacre and the la Mon atrocity. She says sorry to the victims but it’s not in the public interest. That’s it.

It’s about time the penny dropped.

After the de Silva review which exposed a long catalogue  of collusion, there will be no further inquiries or reviews in the lifetime of this coalition government. Mrs Finucane will continue legal process as far as to the Great Supreme Court in the Sky but to no avail. Inquests, some delayed for a decade or more, will sputter on. The odd criminal case review required by a London- based commission will result in the odd “unsafe “ conviction being quashed. There may be more random pre- 1998 prosecutions for horrors like McGurk’s bar.

The British government agree with the chief constable and Haass, that “past” cases should be handed over to a new historic investigations unit from the tarnished HET, the police ombudsman and the PSNI, but it will not have the sweeping powers to reopen cases called for by Amnesty International. And the local parties have to agree to it.

No more inquiries is the first reality to face. The second is that victims and survivors are not and never have been paramount. It would be more than kindness to tell them so. The local parties, fearful of being tripped up by the other side and the cry of betrayal from their own, continue to stall and posture. Rows over amnesties and comfort letters are essentially diversions.

Why is the British government in the driving seat when police and justice has been devolved to Stormont? Two reasons. “National security” which encompasses the sharp end of the Troubles legacy remains with Westminster. And secondly the British government owns most of the archives. “National security” requires continued secrecy about how to infiltrate groups and communities to produce informants. Westminster will be unmoved by anybody quoting the public inquiry immediately announced into police spying on the Stephen Lawrence campaign a decade and more ago. Ireland is different.

Given this implacability, what might shift things along a little?. Mrs Villiers gave us a rare clue a couple of weeks ago.

I appreciate the understandable concern that new structures and processes could lead to a one sided approach which focuses on the minority of deaths in which the state was involved rather than the great majority which were solely the responsibility of the terrorists from whichever part of the community they came….But I’ve also made very clear that if the architecture proposed by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan forms part of a package eventually agreed by the political parties here, then the UK government will play our part in working with the new institutions.

This seems to recognise the idea of one sided justice which is rejected by nationalists and human rights campaigns. Nevertheless, the Stormont parties are encouraged to adopt a more even handed approach to justice than that adopted by the Finucane centre and the committee for the administration of justice. Then we’ll see…

It would greatly help if the Attorney General John Larkin and the DPP Barra McGrory explained why the evidential trail has gone permanently cold. Indeed it’s surely their duty to do so. There are plenty who believe it could be  warmed up with more diligence and commitment .

But the truth is that justice will continue to come dropping slow, piecemeal, sporadic and random, with no end in sight. If the future depends on the past we’re in for a bleak one. The most that might be achieved is a role for academics such as Arkiv and investigative journalists to build up narratives and explore themes and patterns of events on the basis of available sources and whatever archives as might be opened. This would let us know as objectively as possible what can be made known, puncture some of the more egregious myths and leave further questions open for the next stage. It stands the only chance there is of ever making cracks in omerta through genuine debate on the basis of well-gathered evidence and analysis.

These things take a long time. In the Republic the contents of the Bureau of Military History is now being quarried for new material on events from 1913 to 1921 – significantly leaving out the civil war of 1922-24/5. The material was collected decades after the events between 1947 and 1957 and locked away until 2001 when it was made publicly available. Charles Townshend’s latest history The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence shows how much is still to be told about the the revolutionary period of almost a century ago. The pressure of modern communications suggests we could be quicker – but how much quicker is up to the local parties who in some cases have a lot to hide.

As for victims it’s surely a disgrace to stall for so long over their misery. They are not the priority. On who is, they can draw their own conclusions.

 

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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