I was invited today to sit on a panel discussing diversity and division at the DUP party conference. This was chaired by Sammy Douglas and also there were Fr Tim Bartlett, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Hume, for the Orange Order.
The first question is for Fr Tim.
You would not want to be a police officer with the backlog of murders they have to deal with in Northern Ireland. Currently there are 1,800 unsolved murders on the books. An Historical Enquiries Team has been wading through these.
You don’t get many prosecutions.
Where you do, they often fail and even where you nail some gunman who, during the Troubles, maybe shot a teenage girl in the head, or bombed a bar and killed half a dozen people, or somebody who beat a boy to death with a spade because of his religion, then you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing them banged up, for the decades of incarceration and reflection their crimes warrant.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, if they killed as members of a paramilitary group now recognised to be on ceasefire, then they get two years. That’s the deal.
So the Attorney General comes up with an idea.
Instead of being swamped under all these hopeless and unproductive investigations, why don’t we just close the files.
No prosecutions, no inquests – some are still outstanding, believe it or not – no historical enquiries, no special public enquiries for victims groups campaigning for them.
But perhaps a new climate in which the guilty and those who know the guilty can step forward and be truthful. Perhaps that. Perhaps not.
The context for this surprise suggestion is a talks process going on at present under the tutelage of the US diplomat Richard Haass to reconcile burning disputes here, and we have a lot of burning disputes.
One concerns how often the Union Flag should fly over public buildings. Protests over that have landed hundreds of people in court and have dampened commerce in the city. And threaten to sully Christmas for those of us who would rather go shopping, and that’s most of us.
Another dispute concerns Orange Parades going past Catholic areas where really they are not wanted. This tension has been exacerbated on one hand by anti parade protesters who could give themselves an easier life by looking the other way and by parade bands and bandsmen who love nothing more than to wind up a crowd, by beating their drums louder outside Catholic churches.
And the past is in dispute: that’s the big one. What do we do about the past?
For republicans the Troubles was a legitimate war against British imperial oppression, though how that explains bombing pubs and barber shops and supermarkets isn’t at all clear.
For Loyalists it was a war between themselves and the IRA, legitimate from their perspective as the good guys fighting the evil of Republicanism, though it’s not clear how that fight was advanced by shooting random Catholics, walking home from the pub, maybe carving some of them up with butchers knives and phoning their wives at home to let them hear the screams.
And for the British it was a defence of law and order, keeping truculent sectarian factions apart and working for reconciliation and peace – though that isn’t easy to reconcile with covering up for killers on both sides, secret operations which entailed the killing of civilians and, leaking targeting information to Loyalists – the dirty tricks that we seem to be learning a little more about year by year, even month by month.
So you can see why John Larkin, the Attorney General might be tempted to say that progress could be easier if we simply closed the drawer on outstanding cases and enquiries and left each of these three, in effect, with their fantasy that they were fine people doing their best for us all.
For when cases do come up, they all squeal.
Sinn Fein has been picketing the courts arguing that former IRA members should not be on trial because they are peace makers.
Loyalists riot when some of theirs go on trial and claim they are being discriminated against.
The state doesn’t really do much of prosecuting its own people but Unionism is appalled at any prospect of British forces being treated as criminal in their fight against the IRA.
They fear that if there is to be open disclosure of past actions – and freedom from prosecution would help that - then it is the people who kept the files and have the information about past deeds who are going to look worst. The IRA and UDA and UVF presumably don’t have written records of their killings.
And some of the retired security force personnel are pointing to another problem.
If you force disclosure of what we know, it may contain a lot of information about current political leaders and make stable coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP untenable.
And the whole point is to try to preserve political stability by neutralising the irritants that threaten it.
Mr Larkin’s proposal was awkwardly timed if it was to appeal to the victims of paramilitary and state violence, that is, those who would be expected to waive their right to justice.
It came on the thirtieth anniversary of a republican ambush on a religious service in a gospel hall in Darkley County Armagh in which three people died. The congregation was singing Bathed in the Blood of the Lamb as the bullets rattled through them.
Then BBC Panorama broadcast interviews with former soldiers who disclosed that they had killed civilians, trawling the streets of Belfast for targets in unmarked cars, in civilian clothing themselves.
And this is just a couple of weeks after a powerful documentary about those killed and disappeared by the IRA in which Gerry Adams repeated his denial that he was ever in the IRA and upping the tension with his republican critics by describing as liars those former IRA members who have said he was their commander. That hasn’t gone down well and already there have been leaks from inside the IRA of information about operations attributed to Gerry Adams.
If people don’t believe that the IRA and the Loyalists can be honest about the past, – and they have serious reason to doubt it – then they are less likely to pay the price – an effective amnesty for disclosure.
I’m lending my support to the blogger Alan Murray who is seeking legal aid to advance a claim of wrongful arrest against the police.
Alan was charged with harassment of people he had named in his amazing blog about the ruination of the Holy Land area of Belfast.
In all justice, he had to be acquitted or the right of bloggers and journalists to comment on public affairs would have been endangered.
If you are a working journalist who agrees with me on this, please sign the letter below and we’ll give it to lawyers supporting Alan Murray.
The acquittal of the blogger Alan Murray in July 2008 on Harassment Charges is a source of great relief to journalists. A conviction would have implied a threat to the freedom of journalists to do our job. Every time we criticised politicians or other persons of public interest, we would be looking over our shoulders lest we be cautioned or prosecuted by the police.
The bail conditions placed upon Mr Murray, subsequently overturned, were so draconian that he was not even allowed to mention the complainant on his blog or attend public meetings at which the complainant was present.
The police were exercising their powers to restrict free and legal expression and compounding the impression created by the unwarranted prosecution, that Mr Murry’s blogging was a danger to others. This is an especially sinister abuse of power by the police.
It is a matter of considerable concern that despite the acquittal of Mr Murray, other bloggers have been arrested under the Harassment legislation.
The use of Harrassment legislation against innocent bloggers exercising their rights to free expression is a matter for grave concern by all bloggers and journalists and all who value the freedom to report and comment on public affairs.
We believe that Mr Murray’s case against the PSNI for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution has merit and is very much in the public interest.
It is hard for Sinn Fein leaders to say plainly that those who can help catch the dissident should take their evidence to the police. They have, however, come as close to stating that baldly as they have ever done.
In the past their reactions to the dissidents have amounted to a call that they should come forward and explain themselves, as if the objective was to get them into talks rather than into jail.
Martin McGuinness has been better at the condemnatory language than the prescriptive. So the dissidents are ‘enemies’ and ‘traitors’ who should remove themselves from the scene.
We can’t doubt that he is bloody furious with them and it is hardly surprising.
The dissidents are using the strategy that worked for past generations of the IRA.
In January 1919, Dan Breen’s men shot dead two RIC officers and started a guerilla war that would lead to the total collapse of the British state in Ireland.
When Irish people were unwilling to join the police or be seen in their company, and huge numbers discarded their uniforms for their own safety, then Ireland became a problem for the army straggling back from Europe, a political problem to be resolved urgently.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the IRA attacks on the RUC helped deepen the rift between the police and the Catholic people. Few Catholics would join and the reality of a Protestant force made reform an essential part of political settlement.
The aim had been to make Northern ireland ungovernable and to put Irish unity on the table. That bit didn’t work.
Similarly, when the British tried to ease pressure on the police and replace the totally protestant B Specials in 1970, they created a local regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment and urged Catholics to join.
The IRA bombed those Catholics in their cars and shot them and soon the UDR was almost exclusively Protestant and that brick in the new dispensation being attempted was invalidated.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness know that history better than most of us.
They therefore understand what the dissidents hope to achieve and have a sense of how realistic their target is.
If Catholics shrink back from joining the PSNI, in the context of the abolition of the 50/50 rule securing places for them, then Sinn Fein could find itself in partnership in government with an almost exclusively Protestant police force.
The party could not live with that.
All the reforms of policing, the ombudsman and the board and all the human rights legislation would not cover the indignity of Catholic republicans being pursued by Protestant police officers and of suspect, but often innocent, young Catholics being arested, searched and questioned.
McGuinness knows that policing is the loose brick in the peace wall because his own tradition in republicanism trained him to loosen that brick in the hopes that the wall would tumble.
That being the case, he has no choice but to defend the police and the Catholics who have joined and who might join. In doing so, he is defending his own position and his political legacy.
If we revert to Protestant policing, everything he has done will have been in vain.
A thought that should perhaps have occurred to Owen Paterson before he scrapped the 50/50 rule.
The collapse of Catholic policing must be McGuinness’ worst nightmare. It would amount to his own peace accord with the DUP being undermined by the same methods which he used himself against the old Stormont and Direct Rule.
There would be an elegant karmic symmetry to it that one might relish if it wasn’t such an appalling prospect for the rest of us too.
So Sinn fein must now signal to the Catholic community and to other republicans that touting is no longer a sin or a crime. They must encourage a flow of information to the police about the dissidents and help put them out of business.
And they must take a lead in that.
This is the hard part for republicans. Michael Collins in 1921 stormed his former comrades holed up in the Four Courts and blew them to oblivion. History is letting the Provos off lightly in not plunging them into their own civil war.
On balance, McGuinness must surely see that this is not as hard as facing into failure would be.
He is already being told that he is a hypocrite for condemning the murder of Ronan Kerr, having endorsed the murders of 301 other police officers, a policewoman shot in the back outside Derry Courthouse, men shot on their doorsteps, coming from church, visiting hospitals.
Hard too will be the challenge of preserving that memory as honorable while telling those who would use the same methods today that they are enemies and traitors.
Today Martin McGuinness says that the police must win. Now he must tell the dissidents that he was in the wrong too; that the best evidence that they can’t win is that the Provos didn’t win either.
And he must sit down with the Chief Constable, if he hasn’t done already, and tell him everything he knows that might help him nail the old diehards.
This is the blog of my journalism and recordings, with some extracts from my books too.
I tend to sound off on Northern Ireland Politics and Culture.
Some of the work here will be recent journalism, articles that have appeared in the Belfast Telegraph or elsewhere, but there is a lot of material going back a couple of years now, so please hang around and browse.