Chris Ryder, veteran reporter and specialist on police matters, is given space in the Irish Times to repeat the case for halting all pre- Troubles cases and leaving them to historians. Although he is known as a critical friend of the police, he makes a fair and balanced case which should be considered entirely on its merits.
This was an approach I ran with to support Arkiv, a group of historians who wanted to take it on, initially encouraged by the first secretary of state in the Cameron coalition, Owen Paterson. Since then the architecture of the past erected by the Haass report remains on the table for consideration by the parties under the Fresh Start Agreement, to little obvious effect.
For years the running in favour of full investigation has been made by human rights lawyers and journalists. They have made a lot of headway. A new inquest procedure headed by the High Court is in place, although funding has been denied. The courts have allowed legal access to the files of the Stevens reports. To the ill -concealed dismay of many police officers, the Historical Enquiries Team was discredited and is due to be replaced by a stronger and more independent body. The current police ombudsman is more vigorously independent than his predecessor. Collusion allegations, broadly defined, have been pursued with often alarming results. On the positive side on the ground, it is possible that the residue of the paramilitary organisations may be disbanded by consent and all-party agreement.
Looking at investigations across the water, we see old cases coming under new and searching review, from Stephen Lawrence to Hillsborough. Cold cases are revived almost every day with improved forensic techniques including the use of DNA. Why should not Northern Ireland receive similar conscientious treatment in an age which is everywhere less deferential and trusting of state authority?
One answer is that many of us on every side would not like the results. A second is that we know or think we know, many of the results already. A third is that the “truth” in cases where it might still be unearthed ( and there is sharp disagreement about the number) , would cause more pain than closure, never mind reconciliation – more perhaps than society can bear.
A final answer is that local politicians are inevitably tempted to game the issues of the past for political advantage. The belief is strong that they will always prevaricate and never agree, however elaborate the system for encouraging them to do so. The governments, the British in particular, hide behind the cloak of local deadlock.
There is no right answer, only a least worst one. I agree with Ryder and many others that it is not true that the demands of justice must be met before this society can progress. Honesty about the limitations of disclosure can now serve us much better. Better too, to use the £150 million on offer from Westminster to give disgracefully overdue succour to all victims on the only rational basis, that of need.
The past cannot be reshaped and revised, but the future can be influenced and remoulded in the interests of all, especially if the wounds are allowed to heal. Constantly picking and re-picking them prolongs division and disagreement.
For this reason, all the post-conflict proceedings should be halted and the files sealed until historians can produce a measured analysis of what actually took place over the past 50 years.
The £150 million earmarked for legacy investigations ought to be redirected to help supply the mental and physical needs of all the victims coping with the prolonged burden of their unfortunate involvement in a horrendous episode of Irish history.
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