Even if the Stormont institutions haven’t reached the point of existential crisis. the breakdown of interparty talks before they’d even started does not augur well for progress on any front. Can anyone imagine Stormont being able to agree on legislation to help people cross the road, never mind deal with the legacy of the Troubles? Lack of leadership applies all round, the British government included. From at least 2010 it was wholly appropriate for Westminster to stand back and allow the main parties on opposite poles to face reality together, without recourse to the sofas of Downing St. Much was made of justice and policing as the last brick put into place in the edifice of devolution, but most of the really difficult bits now at issue – parades and the great catch-all of national security – remain in Whitehall. There is now an overwhelming case for direct intervention by both governments. Unfortunately the Conservative-led coalition seems reluctant and ill equipped to make it.
Theresa Villiers comes across as a dry lawyer, a junior politician suitable for normality but with no sign of the personal skills and political clout of a Mandelson, a Reid or even an Owen Paterson, who at least had a political interest in the place. Try as he might, David Cameron can no longer rely on the image building gestures of G8, the Giro d’Italia and more normal-looking visits by the Queen to keep up the impression of business as usual.
The bold stroke for parades in the medium term would be to require Stormont to stop behaving like rival opposition parties and assume responsibility for parades, work out case by case compromises on the right to walk with mutually agreed stewarding and policing and then if necessary enforce them. Not a particularly attractive political prospect in a near-marginal like North Belfast perhaps. The idea may seem counterintuitive but the public will hold them responsible anyway, so they may as well exercise some control rather than, in the case of Unionists, endure the humiliation of rejection by a small group of the local great and good. If they can’t agree on something along those lines, the danger is that a new numbers game of political rivalry will begin which will paralyse government and poison working class community relations for decades. The same broad approach, that of taking responsibility,should apply to the Past instead of passing the buck to eminent foreigners under the guise of independence.
For the Past, the logical approach would be a form of amnesty. There the gap is wide between the clamouring politicians and many of the unelected public figures who have quietly held Northern Ireland together over many years. Two leading public figures Sir Desmond Rea the first chairman of the policing board and Robin Masefield a former director general of prisons, are the latest to follow the Attorney General and recommend an amnesty to deal with the past. There is a certain merit is their simple, even simplistic argument.
In their short book” “ Dealing with the Past: A Note to Ambassador Haass” Rea and Masefield set out in laborious detail how public bodies, the NI Policing Board , the NI Select Committee of MPs , successive Chief Constables and British ministers have struggled with the legacy of the Troubles since the Good Friday Agreement. In a sense the authors let the story tell itself, assembled from official speeches, reports and minutes. This does not make it an easy read. Nevertheless, it amounts to a challenge to politicians and all others involved in policing and justice to draw the obvious conclusions from their shared experience.
The long search and continuing failure to find evidence to prosecute in some of the worst atrocities, the limited results of the Cory inquiries, the launch and then the suspension of the historic enquiries team, the departure under a cloud of one police ombudsman, more resources but never enough – all point in one direction. Through all the turgid language of officialise, the conclusion is obvious to the first chairman of the Policing Board (and this is really Rea’s story), although it was usually buried as one option among others. But in article for the Irish Times in May, Rea and Mountfield finally came out of the closet.
“Sinn Féin had argued that its paramilitary wing, viz Provisional IRA, was an army not terrorists, was engaged in a war and since the Troubles was a war the prisoners of war should be released; in a war nasty things happen on both sides; as of, say, the Belfast Agreement, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing should look to the future; the release of prisoners should be extended to an amnesty for all; there should be no more inquiries; and our concern as a society should be for the victims at their point of need.”
But as Rea and Mountfield know all too well, the A –word is political anathema. The Unionists are against amnesty in principle and as a gift to republicans. Even Sinn Fein rejected amnesty for their OTRs when it meant extending it to the security forces in Peter Hain’s ill-fated NI Offences bill in 2005. Legal authorities now tell us a blanket amnesty is internationally illegal. In speeches urging the Executive to tackle the Haaas agenda, the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers declared: “This government does not believe in amnesties..” while going on to describe a system buckling under its own weight.
The piecemeal system that has grown up since the Good Friday Agreement has uncovered some “truth” but precious little “ justice “ and created a justice system tying itself in knots. Who’s next after the drama of Gerry Adams’ arrest? Compensation payments are now being paid out in respect of long delayed inquests, one of them outstanding for 33 years, and with at least another 40 inquests to come. The new police ombudsman, more activist than his hapless predecessor, has taken the PSNI to court in a test case for refusing inter alia to disclose information about informant handling connected to the Loughinisland massacre. The application could go all the way to the Supreme Court. The conclusion of the influential critic Professor Patricia Lundy is hard to resist:
Whatever the interpretation of this policy, it has created a vacuum which is filled by almost daily media reports that drip feed toxic revelations about the atrocities of the past, raising more questions than answers.”
In political terms the Past is mainly unionism’s problem. Nationalist voters supported the republican case in sufficient numbers to give Sinn Fein the leading nationalist role, with the SDLP by and large following in their wake. Unionists have resisted the idea of “the clean slate” even though it is the logic of power sharing they and their voters have accepted. There is a deep unionist frustration over how or even whether Sinn Fein’s onward march can be checked, even though this elemental fear is much exaggerated. Unionists have made a stand over “secret deals” and now it seems over parades. On the Past they resent the fact that Sinn Fein as the IRA’s legatee has brushed aside admitting the full tally of responsibility for over 2000 killings, almost 60% of the total .
Sinn Fein replies with charges of cover up against the British government, namely “the suppression of reports by various commissions from Stalker to Sampson to Stevens and (its refusal) to fulfil its commitments for example on the Pat Finucane murder case or to co-operate with the Barron Commission on the Dublin/Monaghan killings”. Gerry Adams has attacked the “spurious legitimacy” that grades republican “suffering” below its former enemies’. Unionists scorn what they see as the spurious humanitarianism which is a gambit to win retrospective legitimacy for the armed struggle. And so each side denies the legitimacy of the other’s position.
If the legacy of the violent past is ever to be discharged, it will require all parties including the British and Irish governments to display a new openness about the record for which in varying degrees they are responsible. Ms Villiers may be aggrieved that the British government’s record has not been appreciated but she should be reminded that there are at least two versions of one sided justice.
In Ms Villier’s words in two recent speeches, the British government declared 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”. No doubt with the OTRs’ “comfort letters” in mind she added that a new mechanism should be “balanced, transparent and accountable.” Absolutely right. But it is now crystal clear that “eventual agreement” in advance of the UK Government “playing its part” is remote. Both governments are integral parts of the problem and should be integral parts of any solution.
On the basis of “ I jump, you jump, we all jump together”, progress first depends on a deal between the British government and the republican movement to trade researchers’ access to sensitive official files on terms similar to the de Silva review, for republican class acceptance of responsibility for the IRA record, in as much detail as official immunity and Sinn Fein facilitation will allow.
The most urgent move is for a new Historical Inquiries Unit to take over legal investigation of past cases from the PSNI and review the HET’s record of closed cases. An Attorney General’s commission should submit a new definition of the public interest on the basis of what’s left to prosecute.
Sinn Fein should be pressed to spell out its position in much greater specificity. Its 2003 Truth document which appears to be the foundation document contained Mom and apple pie generalisations such as “full co-operation by all relevant parties… is essential to the success of any commission.” A promised update of a special section of its website called “Advancing the Peace Process” has been unfulfilled for too long.
The same requirements for openness and acknowledgment has to apply to the loyalist campaigns. The DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP and UPRG are the legatees who share a mixture of direct and political responsibility.
The incentives for the community to move forward are as self-evident as ever. The political parties face in both directions at once, towards communal consolidation (all unionists together for short term gain; Sinn Fein confident and in the high statesman-like mode that grates on unionists ), but also groping towards greater cross community social solidarity. The monolithic communal blocs are starting to fragment. Different pressures are emerging which argue for greater accommodation in the longer term. The politicians have the difficult task of reconciling contrary pressures. They will need government help to do so.
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