Why is it when the search is on for instructive examples, that Ireland is seldom looked at by British movers and shakers? Over the behaviour of militantly anti-austerity parties when the focus is on Greece, an alternatively financed health service, the behaviour of coalition governments, what a constitutional convention might achieve, Ireland has a wealth of experience good and bad, to draw on. I suspect the reasons for ignoring Ireland is rooted in a mixture of British guilt and its close relative, condescension. It’s somehow easier to look for lessons further away from direct British responsibility. In more than a whiff of lingering Paddy and Mr Punch “Ireland” (pronounced “Ahland”) is too titchy and even now potentially troublesome, despite peace in the North and rapidly improving relations with the Republic. It is often more comfortable, still, to keep Ireland as a whole isolated and our politicians connive in it.
This brings us to the question of the dealing with the Past which the Stormont House Agreement is pledged to tackle. But how? Let’s look for parallels in the opposite direction that might help us. Politicians are frustrated at the delays in publishing the Chilcott report on Iraq which echo but are a long way from matching, the saga of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Simon Jenkins the establishment’s caustic commentator puts his finger on a problem.
At some stage the concept of blame and responsibility has to pass from politicians and lawyers to historians. Some people feel that as long as there are victims, such as families of dead soldiers and civilians, there must be a quasi-judicial closure. I disagree. Like the current craze for “historical” sex prosecutions and repeated Hillsborough inquests, the cost of deflecting police and court resources must be prohibitive.
This is the sort of extreme view that Jenkins often deploys to make us think. Now of course there are many more victims of the Troubles however defined, than there were BrItish soldiers killed in Iraq. And the numbers of dead Iraqis where responsibility is mixed to say the least, barely figure. But Jenkins too casually throws in “historical” sex prosecutions where unlike the Troubles the crimes are only now being uncovered.
Even so. The time came long ago for our little split establishment to grasp facts. It is a disgrace that victims’ physical and psychological needs are still neglected. While of course the past and the present are linked it is simply not true that the present cannot be served until the past is fully laid to rest. How does a full inquiry into the ”Ballymurphy massacre” help bring Camp Twaddell to an end? If anything it adds fuel to the fire.
The Troubles should not be neglected but be treated as history. As with the Iraq war, this places a huge onus on the participants on all sides to expose the facts. Restrictions on truth telling and opening archives should be lifted as a result of Stormont House. Participants should face exposure for withholding the truth or lying. All sides have political motives for concealment and dragging their feet . It’s the job of historians and other professionals to get them moving. It’s hard to see anyone benefiting politically. That in itself would be real progress.
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