Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has mounted “a stinging attack” on Martin McGuinness for saying he would have “ no difficulty “ in disclosing his own role as an IRA leader in dealing with the past. An outsider would be taken aback at the vehemence of Nesbitt’s reaction. On the face of it, McGuinness’s offer sound interesting if not original, particularly with regard to timing. Is something stirring over dealing with the past as outlined in the abortive Stormont House Agreement?
Those who are more familiar with the subject recognise that Nesbitt has a point – although he would be better probing McGuinness’s statement than attacking it.
For a start, McGuinness is speaking only for himself and not for the whole former IRA. Does he want the others to follow his example? This may be implied. If so, he should make it specific. That would be progress.
McGuinness also calls for the British government to “open the files.” That implies all the files. But we all know that this is impossible under present conditions as (in theory at least) all files are liable for review as potential prosecution evidence by a proposed new Historical Investigations Unit. An unlikely coalition of human rights activists including Amnesty International, the British government and the unionist and Alliance parties are in favour of this approach. No amnesty, never, never, never! So McGuinness, Nesbitt and everybody else know that full access to official files is not on.
What might be possible? Limited access to what remains of the Stalker-Sampson evidence and Stevens reports which is now available to inquests are surely prime candidates. These relate to the main “ shoot to kill “ and collusion charges that are such bones of contention. It ought to be possible to say more than the de Silva report on “who pulled the strings, not who pulled the trigger.”
An explanation is required for why most of the Stalker-Samson files were destroyed in 2013.
Sinn Fein may well want to depict the British- controlled security forces as equally compromised, dirty combatants in a dirty war which included the widespread use of loyalist paramilitaries as agents of state terrorism against nationalist suspects. Their challenge should be met. If it has some merit, that merit should be acknowledged. Establishing basic truth is in the end better than avoiding it. Truth will out in the end and both sides of the community would be better off facing it. So would the reputation of the British and Irish Governments at home and abroad.
There is an undoubted asymmetry which requires correction in less than forty years.The case against the IRA is well established in thousands of convictions and prison sentences. Evidence already gathered for inquests and the Police Ombudsman has built a case against the State strong enough to require more comprehensive answers, without going through every single file now in official hands first to eliminate it for prosecution. If the republicans are pursuing diversionary tactics, the State still has to answer charges of procrastination and delay hiding behind due process.
The best initial response to Martin McGuinness would be to match his personal offer of candid disclosure as a leader with similar offers from decision-takers on the State side, on condition that both sides are offered immunity.
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