This week’s coverage in The Economist magazine covers the amnesty proposal with just two words, Closure denied. Sarah’s powerful polemic on the forgetting that the government now wants us all to do is already this week’s must read.
In the Irish Times however, Liam Kennedy brings another, future angle to the process at a time when Sinn Féin activists are both pushing their movement’s bloody campaign and telling voters that the time for a united Ireland is, now.
The President, Michael D Higgins, has popularised the concept of “ethical remembering” in the context of commemorating controversial aspects of the Irish past. We might also consider “ethical imagining” in relation to constitutional futures. If a united Ireland is the political end game then, quite apart from the many practical concerns, there are ethical considerations that need to be attended to.
These are fundamental because they embody the values that assure mutual trust and the legitimacy of the new institutions of State. Thus, planning for Irish unity, to invoke another term in vogue, includes laying down the moral foundations for the new constitutional order.
But here’s the problem. The tragedy of the quest for Irish unity is that it is wrapped up in the recent and bloody past of the Troubles. The most prolonged period of inter-communal violence in the North since 1700 is to be found in the final three decades of the last century.
Ireland’s 30-years war belongs not to the 17th but the late 20th century. An honest and open dialogue needs to recognise not only that dire fact but acknowledge degrees of responsibility for the vast toll of human suffering left in its wake.
Why does this matter? Well, because…
The principal driver of violence – not the only one of course – was the republican movement in the shape of the Provisional IRA. In round figures, 60 per cent of Troubles-related deaths were due to Irish republicans, 30 per cent to loyalist paramilitaries, and 10 per cent to the British security forces.
The main killing agency was the Provisional IRA, which was responsible for half of all violent deaths. The IRA’s bombing campaign targeted town centres and businesses which tended to be Protestant-owned. The sectarian imprint runs deep.
He notes how the Provisional’s analogues on the loyalist side (also beneficiaries of this new amnesty) have been sidelined by unionist voters in way that Sinn Féin hasn’t. Indeed unionist voters are also now sidelining unionist politicians.
However, while Sinn Féin has dominated the nationalist pitch for much of the last 20 years, the recent humbling of the DUP and drift towards the Alliance and likely at least to some extent the TUV, makes it harder to radicalise that vote.
There have been some signs that the anti violence SDLP has been making headway in at least some of the territories which it had lost to more fundamentalist politicians of Sinn Féin and the DUP.
But back to the argument, as Kennedy notes:
A disavowal of past violence is an essential part of laying the moral foundations for a united Ireland. Otherwise, how could former Ulster unionists feel remotely secure?
But most usefully, he quotes from this recent UN report (PDF):
How might a collective apology be given effect? Fortunately, there is a model to hand that has the sanction of the United Nations. A recent UN report, “Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence”, offers some ethical and practical guidelines.
These include “a public statement of remorse or regret related to the wrongful act or acts, or omission, that is delivered with due respect, dignity and sensitivity to the victims”. Especially importantly, it insists on a guarantee of non-recurrence.
Public apologies inevitably relate to the ethical burdens of the past. But they are also forward-looking, as the UN report underlines. They can mark the beginning of a new era of openness and “a break from past cultures of violence”.
Much has been written about the economics and the practicalities of a united Ireland. But the immaterial, it is suggested here, is more material to Irish unity than the material. Unless the moral foundations of any new constitutional arrangement are attended to, then alienation, discontent and civil disturbance are likely to ensue.
The values that animated the IRA insurgency threatened Irish democracy, North and South. If these values continue to be normalised within the new political dispensation, then it is hard to see how the apprehensions of sceptical nationalists and moderate unionists can be assuaged, never mind those of hardline loyalists.
Interestingly in the UN report itself is the following:
It is not uncommon, for example, to find support for the proposition that in post-conflict settings each and every ex-combatant should become the recipient of benefits through demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programmes.
No similarly ambitious commitments are expressed even rhetorically concerning the reparation of the victims of such conflicts.2 This is not only unfair, it has detrimental consequences.
To the extent that demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programmes aim at the reintegration of ex-combatants, not attending to the claims of receiving communities and the victims therein does not facilitate that process.
In post-conflict situations, providing benefits to ex-combatants without making any effort to provide reparations to victims can send the message that bearing arms, in the end, is the only way to get the attention of the State.
The endless negotiations outlined in Brian Rowan’s recent book Political Purgatory between the British and Sinn Féin have largely focused on getting concessions and rights for ex-combatants to the near exclusion of any consideration of victims.
Now, much of this is a political matter for Sinn Féin and/or their voters. Since it still sends senior TDs to lionise the attempted murderer of former First Minister Arlene Foster’s dad, it’s not likely to be forthcoming in the short term.
Which begs the question as to whether when the lead nationalist movement in Northern Ireland continues to celebrate the massive scale of its own human rights violations, is a united Ireland is ever possible? Or is time for a change?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty