At Westminster on October 12th, Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers will introduce legislation on dealing with the past. But the chances of it working are very small.
Even handedly, he shares fears that both the Bloody Sunday police investigations involving the army, and the information given under immunity on the Disappeared involving the IRA, will finally and quietly result in closure, setting precedents for most if not all other open cases.
After 30 years of Troubles, and an avalanche of charges of official collusion, cover-up , feet dragging over inquests and perceived flawed mechanisms like the Historical Enquiries Team, trust is bound to be thin.
The British Government has pledged “full cooperation” with a new independent Historical Investigations Unit – subject of course to “ national security”. I can hear the hollow laughs. But at least there’ll be massed ranks of lawyers and politicians to hold them and the Irish government to account according to their own standards expressed in law. The Bill is clearly an acknowledgment that past measures were inadequate and amounts to a fresh initiative. The Committee for the Administration of Justice’s (CAJ’s ) proposals would stiffen the guarantees of independence but are in line with the government’s proposals.
There are other questions that Eamonn doesn’t deal with here. There is disagreement over what is available in the records for even a beefed up Historic Investigations to uncover. Remember Attorney General John Larkin’s dramatic entry into the affair in an opinion hotly disputed by Nuala O’Loan among others? And note the attack on the discrediting of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) by its champion, the former chief constable Hugh Orde, who is hardly a typical defender of the old order.
There is a basic issue over the level of expectations of what any system of investigation can uncover.. Politicians would do well not to raise them too high. Perhaps tacit acceptance of this is why these aspects of the Stormont House Bill may be inching towards agreement. Governments with the best of intentions can only deliver so much, whether or not the British government is among them.Walls of silence on both sides are as pervasive as peace walls and will as take long, or even longer, to come down.
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