There was quite a lot of noble handwringing in that Lords debate that needs unpicking. Dealing with the past was confused with dealing with the present impasse. There is of course a link but they are really two clean different things. It was odd to hear Paul Bew, a historian who has dedicated much of his life’s work to creating credible accounts of the past out of opposing positions, to dismiss so dogmatically the prospects of dealing with our most recent past. What’s so special about the Troubles? Paul’s particular pessimism may be influenced by the history of the Boston tapes in which he was so much involved and traduced for his pains by Gerry Adams just after the Sinn Fein leader emerged shocked and embarrassed after undergoing a standard suspect’s interrogation inside Antrim police station. But the Boston tapes was a leading edge exercise in best evidence of a very particular kind which was always going to be high risk whether handled well or ill. What we saw being enacted was a good old fashioned republican split which the authorities clumsily and largely unsuccessfully tried to exploit. It was the contemporary resonance that enflamed it.
The essential problems of dealing with the past are two fold. One is that so much of it is – legally at least – potentially live. Disclosure outside the courtroom is impossible if prosecutions can be threatened and the police go on silly fishing expeditions . Politicians of all kinds dare not make the amnesty official. If victims were the first priority they would do so. Most of the handwringing is humbug.
Chris Patten too is wrong, taking the familiar line of bemoaning the actions of the warring tribes, when he said:
“ There are only so many steps that our Government can take without them being firmly founded on the engaged consent of the population as a whole rather than the partisan responses to the well meant proposals of fly-by highly talented neutral diplomats, however skilled in peace processes—and however self-effacing—they may be.
But the public can hardly give or withhold “engaged consent” to versions of truth which have not yet emerged. With regard to historical truth recovery the problem does not lie mainly with the plain people of Northern Ireland. It rests with the two principal parties to the Troubles, the British government and the republican insurrectionists who opposed them. Both of them have little interest in leading a process of further disclosure of their own actions. I found that out the hard way.
A state-sponsored exercise in truth recovery may be a distant prospect. But that should not deter historians and others from pegging away at it piecemeal, the way they usually do. And an honest debate should be held on whether it would be better to lay the past aside – given the extent of propagandising and the obvious reluctance of the principals to face it – and give a helluva lot more attention to the present and future.
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