Around 400 people filled the assembly hall of St Mary’s University College to hear deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton discuss the challenges of dealing with the past under the eye of chair Brian Rowan.
Another 100 or more stood along the pavement outside St Mary’s protesting at the presence of the Chief Constable in West Belfast and calling for an end to “British internment in Ireland”. A tannoy blasted music over the railing towards the education college, and occasionally the strains of a song could just be heard during a lull in conversation in the hall.
The Chief Constable began by saying that he appreciated that his presence was difficult for some people in the audience tonight. [PSNI (partial) transcript of opening remarks.]
It is clear that the current piecemeal approach to the past is not working.
While I will do all that I can to support those who are still suffering; I will not compound peoples’ pain by giving unrealistic expectations of what policing can deliver.
Acknowledging that the PSNI has a large budget, he said that investment is no where near enough to meet demand. The legislative framework and budget for historical investigations comes from political arena.
In terms of handing over files and evidence to the Historical Investigations Unit, the Chief Constable committed to cooperate fully if politicians could deliver the legislation required to make the director of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) the ‘data owner’, removing the decision around redactions from the hands of the police.
I want to give that responsibility to someone who is seen as more of an honest broker than I am.
At a later point Brian Rowan wondered out loud whether the police “vault” in HIU hands would be joined by the MI5 vault and other security force information.
George Hamilton admitted there had been some serious difficulties in policing. But the reports from inquiries and ombudsman neglect to tell a much wider story of policing a story of pain, loss and grief – pain loss and grief “no different than … experienced within republican or PUL communities”.
He expressed his “deepest sympathy” and sorrow for the pain and anguish experienced over 25 years by a long list of groups that included state forces.
When we think about victims – no matter who they are – we need to be very humble. Particularly for someone like me – part of the conflict and a member of the IRA … I have to acknowledge that others in society who were on the opposite of the argument also suffered.
He criticised the British Government’s commitment to dealing with the past. Closing his remarks he spoke about flying over to Heathrow with Gerry Adams on more than one occasion to be picked up in a car to spend time talking about the peace process with Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell at Chequers.
I think George Hamilton is as passionate about the peace process as I am.
He finished by admitting that dealing with the past would be difficult for republicans.
Many of the questions from the audience came from the family members of victims. Many queried the lack of police resource investigating their cases. While careful in earlier remarks not to criticise the coroner, the Chief Constable responded to one question by explaining that he had over one hundred officers chaotically working on legacy cases, moving between cases to meet the latest demands from coroners. George Hamilton revealed that the Coroner will not sit down with him to talk about scheduling cases.
An audience member suggested that the hundreds of people protesting at the Chief Constable’s presence in St Mary’s could not be classed as “micro groups”. While not agreeing with the “micro group” description, the panel agreed that engagement was the way forward.
Martin McGuinness talked about conversations about education with Peter Robinson in which they agreed that if they were starting from scratch it would be a fully integrated system.
The Chief Constable had spent 90 minutes earlier today with Relatives For Justice. He suggested that the PSNI needed to stop walking on eggshells around republicans. They needed to take a few risks and empower PSNI officers to engage right across communities
Restating his passion for the structures in Stormont House Agreement, Martin McGuinness says he will encourage republicans “to do everything in our power to ease the anguish … resulting from the actions of the IRA”.
Republicans done a terrible thing when they buried the bodies of who are called the ‘disappeared’ … caused immense hurt … because of appeals within republicans there are now 4 cases to be resolved out of many many more cases. There are countless other cases that have never been in the public domain … where people were able to get that information [from republicans].
Rev Harold Good had been invited to the event and was described by Brian Rowan as “a wise old owl of the peace process”. Asked to comment, the Methodist minister summed up the evening as an example of the “uncomfortable conversations” Sinn Féin has been holding in recent times. On education, his words about “let’s not pass it on to our kids that they have to sort out our future” were rewarded with applause as he pleaded “let’s use the structures that we have to integrate in whatever way we can”.
Earlier, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt stated that without mutual trust we can’t deliver mutual respect, adding that his impression was that trust was building.
There was huge media interest in the discussion, much of which Eamonn Mallie Periscoped – or ‘Horror-scoped’ as Brian Rowan referred to it – from his vantage point crouched in front of the panellists’ table.
George Hamilton’s sentiment is very similar to that of his predecessor Matt Baggott (who attended and spoke at a Sinn Féin organised event in the Europa Hotel back in June 2013). However, his delivery, his use of local vernacular, and his tendency not to grin seem to make him a more plausible policing figure. About to mention the Sinn Féin leader, he got a chuckle when he turned towards where Gerry Adams had been standing for much of the evening and realised he wasn’t there and quipped:
Gerry Adams has gone away you know!
Both the deputy First Minster and the Chief Constable stated the trust they had for each other, and committed to helping reveal the truth about the past. Both acknowledged that their organisations or communities had done wrong and accepted – welcomed, even – that the truth would come out.
Republicans were told they should cooperate with truth-gathering processes, and the PSNI confirmed that they would willingly hand over their information to the HIU when sufficient legislation was in place.
Neither figure waggled their finger at the other. Operational matters were not on tonight’s agenda, so there was neither any particular reference to Sunday’s republican parade nor to the continued loyalist protests at Twaddell Avenue.
And the Chief Constable left without the folded up newspaper clipping about bankers that was passed forward through the audience, so it seems unlikely he’ll be encouraging his peers in London to open an investigation!
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.