On dealing with the past, Brokenshire should demand Executive action or withdraw the money

James Brokenshire is at least the eighth secretary of state to utter warm words about dealing with the past.   It’s almost two years since the abortive Stormont House Agreement described new structures headed by a new Historic Investigations Unit. £150 million will be made available by Westminster over the next five years to implement the full package.

Brokenshire is the latest UK minister to acquaint himself of “the raw emotion, the pain etc” and to repeat the government’s pledge of “full disclosure” to the HIU.

Why not get on with it then?  What merit it is there in further delay?

It may be all new to him, as  it was to all the other here -today- and -gone tomorrow British ministers ; but this  no doubt well meaning  stuff  has become clockwork talk. We have heard it so often. Paterson morphs into Villiers and into whoever…

Waiting for the full agreement of all paramilitary bodies which are supposed not to exist anyway is like waiting for Godot. Soulful words  about victims  do not begin to meet the real problems.   The latest glitch is over the UVF’s refusal to agree to implementation of the whole package without being consulted. Brokenshire told the Belfast Telegraph:

“I stand ready to meet and talk to them (the PUP). I’ve been largely focused on meeting victims and survivors and community groups, but I know there are others I need to meet.”

Loyalist sources have told the Belfast Telegraph that there have been a number of “background” discussions with officials from the Northern Ireland Office in recent months, but no formal talks regarding efforts to implement the Stormont House Agreement.

But it’s not all down to loyalists. The  qualification of the UK governments’ pledge of  ” full disclosure”  is that it’s subject to the potential catch-all of “national security”. Additionally Brokenshire  repeats the  vague pledge not “to rewrite history “- meaning that the Government is as determined as  ever to thwart republican efforts  to show that the state was just as bad as the IRA etc. etc..

If the state jumps, republicans will follow, implies Martin McGuinness. But trust all round is lacking.  However the endless delay allows  McGuinness to adopt the statesmanlike posture of calling for “ a short intensive dialogue” to resolve the impasse.

What does he mean by “ a last ditch attempt?” And so the merry-go-round of prevarication continues.

Meanwhile Arlene Foster and the rest of the Executive still fail to answer the Lord Chief Justice’s repeated requests to fund the fast tracking of legacy inquests.

Brokenshire should demand that the Executive approve setting up the new Unit to test the strength of evidence on file for further prosecutions without more delay. This does not need approval from paramilitary opinion. Waiting for support for voluntary disclosure all round is also a futile exercise.  If the Executive  parties fail to agree, the British government should withdraw the  £150 million funding and apportion blame where it’s due.

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

  • Slater

    There has to be a limit in time and finance to investigating the past. However by a distorted but unchallenged understanding of Article 2 of the ECHR and its procedural implications – not of the right to life itself but enquiries – the numbers of re-opened inquests can and will be limitless.

  • Kevin Breslin

    How would this deal with British government collusion?

  • Obelisk

    Sinn Fein will never agree to a process that labels the IRA as terrorists. Unionists will never agree to a process that DOESN’T label the IRA as terrorists. The British government would clearly prefer not to have to air their dirty laundry and so they all talk fine words and cast the blame at each other’s feet but in truth the current situation suits everyone…everyone except the victims of course.

  • Brian Walker

    They get away with it because the local parties won’t get their act together.

  • Redstar

    But SF doesnt want British collusion aired either. It could throw up some very interesting Republican names who were colluding with the British BEFORE Mmg etc made careers out of it

  • chrisjones2

    The DUP will never agree to a process that will expose their past and current links to terrorists

  • murdockp

    18 years after the end of 2nd world war the Beatles has released thier second album and sixties were swinging and full relations with Germany restored against a backdrop of 500,000 British deaths.

    here in NI we are still in the past and can’t deal with it

    problem is it is now a highly lucrative troubles industry

  • chrisjones2

    I dont agree. The local parties do not want a solution to this. Financially and in terms of votes it is there to be leeched off and milked

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The fact that one of the main local parties was up to its neck in terrorism – and they have a veto – effectively scuppers any chance of anything meaningful happening. It’s simply not in Republicans’ interests to do the right thing by their thousands of victims.

    They will continue to use the fact the government is hamstrung by its security and intelligence responsibilities as an excuse to wriggle off the hook.

    We can talk about local parties not getting their act together till the cows come home, but the reality is the parties that were the political wings of terrorist movements are in an entirely different position in this from all the other parties. I hate to see the constitutional parties dragged into blame for this, who really have a molehill of things to hide compared to the Himalayan ranges of armed Republicanism and Loyalism.

    At some point we need to stand up, non-terror-apologist Catholics and Protestants alike, as a society together, face down the terror parties and their supporters and demand from them at long last the fairness and justice they demand so achingly for themselves.

  • Granni Trixie

    But what about everyone else? For moral reasons many define the IRA as terrorists – including Catholics, nationalists and all along the spectrum. You are writing in straight forward sectarian terms.

  • Granni Trixie

    You will have to expand – is t clear what you mean.

  • Granni Trixie

    Not all parties.

  • Obelisk

    No, I am writing in realistic terms. They just happen to reflect the viewpoints of all involved. Sinn Fein won’t back down on this. The Unionists won’t back down on this. Because they can’t agree on a process, they can’t call the British government to account.

    Now tell me, how do you propose getting Sinn Fein to sign up to a process declaring the IRA terrorists?

    Or get Unionists to sign up to a process saying they weren’t?

    And remember, for the process to work, both those sides have to have buy in as both have vetoes.

  • Granni Trixie

    O I get it now – when you say ‘unionists’ you mean “the DUP”. However, I was just questioning your apparent assumption that across the board there are not many who regard the IRA as terrorists.
    Infact I took it as a slur on Catholics in particular.

  • file

    Do we actually have to deal with the past? Can we not just accept it, and more importantly accept that it is in the past? Has any country really dealt with its past? I mean, take England, it still produces TV programmes extolling the virtues of Oliver Cromwell. Take the USA – could you say there is a general understanding and acceptance among the population there of the role of US government agencies in starting and continuing wars in many. many countries, in the past and in the present? Take the whole portrayal of WW1 as some glorious fight for freedom against the baddies rather than the power struggle between empires that it really was. More relevantly, take the denial from some corners of unionism that there was discrimination against Catholics before the Civil Rights Campaign. I mean, if we cannot even get universal acceptance of that fact, dealing with the more recent past is a non-starter.

  • AntrimGael

    The will be NO agreement on how to deal with the past; it will be like parading. It will be put out to pasture until victims and relatives die off and the passage of time invokes disinterest and detachment in the younger generation. The British have most to lose and they are already proposing to give a total amnesty to EVERYONE who serves or served in their armed forces and who, under new British legislation, will be given carte blanche to do what they want or excused for the past activities. Brokenshire is a iron fist in a velvet glove; one of Smiley’s People who grins in an unnerving way as he dismisses everything Paddy Irishman says to him; he fools no one.
    Meanwhile UnIonists are still in La La Denial land about murderous Loyalism and the part mainstream, ‘constitutional’ Unionism played in it. I just watched Pop Goes Northern Ireland, 1985, on BBC2 and we see Unionist politicians in cahoots with known UVF and UDA thugs around the Anglo Irish Agreement protests and violence. As Brian Feeney said on Inside Politics, Unionists are still dancing cheek to cheek with the UDA, UFF and UVF over government handouts; the same paramilitary organisations that are STILL murdering, STILL drug dealing, STILL intimidating, STILL extorting, STILL attacking people on a daily basis. Meanwhile the media and two governments still bury their heads over the Third Force, Ulster Resistance, armed men on hillsides and the 100’s of guns STILL in the hands of these same Unionists and Loyalists.

  • Skibo

    MU in the event that there is full disclosure there will be very few with clean hands in NI. David Irvine on a number of occasions hinted at this.
    The extent of collaboration between the British Government and others on both side will come out eventually and a lot of people will be eating humble pie, perhaps yourself included.

  • Skibo

    One question in your use of the word constitutional, what defines constitutional?

  • Obelisk

    By Unionists I meant both the DUP and the UUP, as this issue has been going on for years and both groups held power and held this position.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I doubt it – lots more details to be revealed I’m sure but the big picture is already there. These are questions of moral philosophy which we already have enough of the facts on to be able to debate and work out our positions on. Your premise is that there are new facts out there which could fundamentally alter the shape of the picture we now have on the recent history of anti-terrorist policing and security work. I’m scratching my head to think what could come out that would change that. What kind of hidden truths are you thinking there are?

    Da Silva didn’t cover the whole Troubles but did cover a key phase of it in the 80s, had access to intelligence and security records etc – and while he came down hard on some serious abuses of power by rogue operators within intelligence, he was also clear the overall shape of the work by the security forces against armed loyalism was that it was highly praiseworthy and effective, as far as we can judge, in disrupting the terror gangs, and most importantly, reducing loss of life to loyalist terror. I would expect similar things hold for the no doubt equally imperfect and deadly infiltration and agent-running activities within the PIRA. Guess what – policing against deeply dug-in terrorist gangs with massive (and disgraceful) support networks in their own communities isn’t for Sunday school teachers. Either we are grown-ups and get that, or we can choose to live in Lala-land where we expect a 30 year anti-terrorism operation to be conducted without misconduct at any point.

    The test is this, if I may put this back to you: given that anti-terrorist policing and security work is still going on and presumably will always have to, what should we do differently in terms of how we tackle terrorist groups? I wonder if you are suggesting we should no longer run agents inside terrorist groups – or that, upon the commission of a terrorist attack by a terror cell, the state agent inside it has to come out, lest the state by deemed to be “responsible” for it. If so, I just don’t see how that’s workable.

    Alternatively, what are your ideas for how best to stifle and degrade our terror gangs?

    I wonder, for example, if sections of the public who have shown sympathy with terrorism might be challenged to play a more useful role in the future perhaps, by making a decisive break from anyone justifying present or past terrorist violence. We all need to pull together against terrorism, public and security forces, if we want to beat them in the long run. Progress has been made but we need to wean ourselves away from the cruel old habit of throwing rocks at the people we task to work at the coal face on this.

    Criticism where it is due of course, and I support prosecutions and jail for the small number of wrongdoers who disgrace the uniform. But the rest deserve our respect and gratitude for amazing, brave work on our behalf in the most difficult of circumstances.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the term “constitutional parties” used to be very commonly used across politics and the media, pre-GFA. In the Troubles, it referred to all the normal parties, the ones that followed politics alone rather than having a terrorist wing. The distinction was so often made because it was so massively significant during the Troubles – the question of whether you were making your case just with words, or by killing people, was a pretty important distinction. Less useful now because all parties now (officially at least) oppose terrorism, the IRA having lost.

  • Theelk11

    So by that definition the DUP are screwed and all.

    I heard Pengelly rabbiting on about governance while her fathers oul mates got a cut. Spread the happiness..

  • MainlandUlsterman

    DUP occasionally flirted with terrorists, much to their disgrace; SF was the political wing of a terrorist movement. When it comes to truth telling about the terrorist past, I’d conservatively estimate SF has around 1,500% more crimes to reveal than the DUP. The Republican Movement committed more paramilitary-related transgressions in an average week of the Troubles than the DUP was party to in the entire 30 years.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No, not all the parties, Granni.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MU, the big picture is not even there regarding the events of 1688/91!!!!!

    Even some very respected historians ignore the implications for the general interpretation of the “Glordious” Revolution of the toleration policies of James II and regurgitate the old propaganda of the period. Luckily a few historians actually research and publish on these things:


    With a history that is long past so studiously ignored, why should anyone even begin to think that inconvenient facts about the recent past will not be smothered as long as it is in the national interest to do so. We have enough instances of similar blind eyeing of personal concerns when even public figures from the Liberal shadow cabinet such as Cyril Smith and Clement Freud could act unobserved in their shady doings, so how much more so issues of national security?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    There are lots of reasons, some bad but some actually good and for the benefit of us all, for information around security and intelligence work to remain under wraps. Not least the disaster for future intelligence-gathering work if informers come to believe the state cannot or will not offer them continued identity protection after their usefulness ceases.

    But my point was not that new stuff won’t come out that will be interesting but just that it rarely completely changes our understanding of a whole period. And in the Troubles, the big factual landmarks around what happened are already out there in the public domain – it is genuinely hard to imagine what kind of fact would come up now that would alter the picture. Genuine question, what kind of stuff, speculatively, could come out now that would alter your view of the Troubles?

    The only major thing left that I do think about is the possibility of the SF leadership itself – an Adams or a McGuinness – being revealed to have been double agents. But even that frankly wouldn’t change that much in terms of explaining what happened in the Troubles. The IRA campaign still happened in line with the extremist version of Irish nationalist ideology they believed in; the state tried to get members of the movement to turn and many did; the violence went on and the state got some intelligence about it, foiled a lot of it but could never expunge it entirely, etc. It’s really no surprise the state got to some big figures within the paramilitaries, so that wouldn’t perhaps make the ground shake for me, though of course it would be a big deal within Republicanism.

    Can’t really think of anything else that wouldn’t be heavily contradicted by what we already know. The loyalist collusion stuff, for example, seems to have hit a ceiling, because of the stubborn facts set out most authoritatively in the Da Silva Report’s Chapter 5, but widely commented on by all intelligent observers, i.e. the state made plenty effort and had plenty success against Loyalists both in terms of prosecutions and in murder-rate reduction.

    So I am wondering what big new fact is going to blow everything out of the water? Perhaps we do actually know quite a lot about the broad shape of what happened. We are after all one of the most researched societies in the world.

  • Skibo

    I question your hypothesis that the IRA have lost. They have moved their operations from military to political. Their aim stays the same.
    As for the “constitutional parties” I take it we can all now call Sinn Fein a constitutional party?

  • Skibo

    Along with the Da Silva inquiry, we could add the Stevens inquiry, the CAJ, the report by Param Cumaraswamy and the numerous investigations by the Police Ombudsman.
    The level of collusion with both sides of the conflict has been drip fed to the general public in a way that it no longer shocks anyone.
    In Unionist hearts, any amount of bending to the extent of breaking the law is acceptable as long as it controls violent Republicanism.
    Would it be so wrong, when a group is infiltrated and evidence gathered to arrest them charge them and imprison them. Is it more acceptable to allow murders to continue and even take part in to keep that informer in place?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They certainly lost the “Armed Struggle”.

    It’s unclear on SF’s status as it’s all so mired in the underworld of paramilitarism. They would have us think they are now a fully constitutional party, but they haven’t been able to convincingly explain their current relationship with the PIRA. In the last big security update we had, PIRA members believed that SF still ultimately answered to the PIRA Army Council, at least in theory. It is unclear what level of contacts are going on between the SF leadership and the PIRA leadership or the nature of those contacts, so this is the best information we have to go on. If that’s right, they are not a “constitutional party”.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “In Unionist hearts, any amount of bending to the extent of breaking the law is acceptable as long as it controls violent Republicanism.”
    You’ll have seen from my posts that’s not true (for me at least), as I’ve called for full prosecution of people disgracing the uniform through taking the law into their own hands.

    “Would it be so wrong, when a group is infiltrated and evidence gathered to arrest them charge them and imprison them?” No it wouldn’t on many occasions and that was the ultimate goal. But if you are up against a criminal organisation rather than just a group of individuals, arresting the small fry doesn’t actually disrupt the organisation much and therefore is inadequate to protect the public. You have to play the long game, whether it’s with the PIRA, Mafia families, Al Qaeda or anyone else. I’d have thought that was organised crime policing 1.01.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “But my point was not that new stuff won’t come out that will be interesting but just that it rarely completely changes our understanding of a whole period.”

    But this is the very point I’m making, that a simple contextualistion of the received narrative of 1688 with Scott Sowerby’s research actually does completely change our understanding of the revolution of that year, and in a manner in which the foundation myths of the protestant community of the north of Ireland would require serious reappraisal. The issue of state involvement with major players within the violent organisations would certainly bring into question the issue of their role’s acceptability to myself and many others, but I know from earlier posts we disagree over how acceptable such things are to each of us. I simply cannot compute the idea of authorising violent action as cover for significant informants, as killing the public to protect the public simply does not work for me.

  • Skibo

    MU this is something that most Unionists hold dear. The IRA were defeated but it wasn’t actually so. Both sides removed military from the scene. There was no big scene of P O’Neill lowering his colours and handing over his side arm.
    Weapons were put beyond use.
    As for the PIRA, SF say they are disbanded, gone, no more. The people within that organisation have not dissapeared into a puff of smoke. They are still around. Some have stepped back completely. Some got involved in community organisations and some got engrossed into politics.
    As for your comments on the belief of PIRA members, the report stated that was a belief of members but did not confirm it was fact.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I know, they were given a “soft landing” 😉 Walks, talks and feels like a defeat to me, but hey, I’m not a Republican. Whatever mantra keeps them out of their dark place, they have my permission to repeat it to themselves. As long as the rest of us don’t confuse it with reality, there’s no harm.

    “As for your comments on the belief of PIRA members, the report stated that was a belief of members but did not confirm it was fact.”
    Which was what I said. I also pointed out, the secrecy around SF-IRA internal dealings means we are not allowed to know. Is that acceptable?

  • Skibo

    Secrecy doesn’t come into it SF state and continue to state that the IRA has gone away.
    I don’t know how much simpler it can get.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    How do they know? One assumes they have the inside track – so what is that exactly? Meetings, emails, what? Can we see the records? It is kind of important stuff to be not allowed in on …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    So we have to take their word for it and not ask too many awkward questions … Are you suggesting that as an overall approach to truth recovery?

  • Skibo

    You could have a point there. Perhaps we could ask P O’Neill for the minutes of the last number of meetings of the Army Council and look for where it stated that the order came through for the disbandment of the IRA! Are you for real?

  • Skibo

    You can ask all the questions you want of them but i assume if they keep coming back with the same answers, at some stage you will take on board that the PIRA have gone away.
    Truth and recovery to me is a very difficult issue to resolve. What kind of a result is required from it?
    Do the victims and their families want to know how and why their family members were murdered? I think that could be resolved.
    Do the victims and their family members want the culprits to hand themselves over for questioning and punishment? No, I don’t see that happening on any side.
    A truth and reconciliation process is one thing. A truth and punishment process will fall at the first hurdle.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You seem to accept much, much lower standards of transparency and of behaviour generally from them than from other people in public life. If that is how they operate, that’s their decision, but they cannot then expect to be treated with respect in that case. Especially when the same Republicans are demanding so much transparency from public servants – people who have much, much better reasons for maintaining confidentiality due to their continuing role in anti-terror policing and intelligence. And people whom the Republicans believed in killing until a few years ago.

  • Skibo

    MU I could take your comment on my acceptance of a lower standard of transparency into the behaviour of the Republican movement and raise you your acceptance of the actions of the security services within NI before, during and after the times now known as the Troubles.
    I assume you have some idea how a covert organisation works and the fact of keeping records is against the whole raison detre of the movement.
    Opposing sides in a conflict will always have trouble trusting each other. Isn’t there still an element of British people not trusting Germany?
    On the issue of truth and recovery, how do you see it being successful or at least as successful as possible to remove the issue of the past stopping progress in the present?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    we need as full truth as possible to help people move on; but I think if the price of getting the IRA to talk is that we have to play along with their “war” fantasy then that’s too high a price and will actually deepen the anger and antagonism, not ease it. “Opposing sides in a conflict” – please, don’t be a fool to their self-propagandising, we all know what the paramilitaries were and what they are. They have gone and had to go; the police and army will never go – that is as it should be.

    Paramilitarism was always the big problem. Policing issues and intelligence issues around dealing with paramilitarism were always secondary and only ever arose because of the fact of paramilitarism. This whole thing, of the paramilitaries now using the confidentiality involved in security and intelligence work as an excuse for their own continued failure to do the right thing by victims, is unacceptable. We need to track the money inside the paramilitary machines, extract it and redistribute it to victims.

    The paramilitaries will writhe and yelp but we have them where we want them now – we just need to push on through and show no sympathy for those disgusting louts, for the sake of victims and for wider society. They owe us. But they cling on with the help of those unwilling to call them out for what they are.

  • Skibo

    MU you do realise that the Army has gone away, the UDR is gone all together and the RUC is no more. Not exactly the situation that you would report.
    Oh ye of short memory “Paramilitarism was always the big problem”. What Paramilitarism was there before 1968 other than the reformed UVF blowing things up and trying to blame Republicans. If you believed that then, that is part of the problem.
    Paramilitarism was secondary to the fact that NI was a two tier society. The actions of the old Stormont Parliament in running a Protestant state for a Protestant people was the pressure cooker that led to the civil rights movement and it was the very actions of the security services during that time on peaceful marches that led people to believe that the only thing that would bring about change was violence.

    “the paramilitaries now using the confidentiality involved in security and intelligence work” Is it ok for security services to use confidentiality and non-accountability for security and intelligence work?
    “no sympathy for those disgusting louts” I am sure the Germans would have used the same description of the French Resistance.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    (Groan). You don’t actually believe all that sh** do you?
    Too depressingly on-message Shinnerbot to even bother with I’m afraid.

  • Skibo

    Funny, I do believe it otherwise i wouldn’t have written it. I was thinking the same of your post but thought you had your right to your beliefs, Unionist, White as white always in the right.
    And actually I am not a shinnerbot and will criticise them when I believe they need it. I still find it difficult to understand the handing back of social welfare to Westminster.