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Archive for September, 2010

The past in Northern Ireland is a clatter of unfinished stories, and the neater and more vague the official versions of events, the more suspicious and cynical we become.
Rightly or wrongly.
An early assessment of past violence was the Widgery Tribunal into the Bloody Sunday killings of January 1972. That taught us how examining the past would have to work. The government of the day and the political and military leaders would have to be shielded from any charge of murder. That’s how most of us understood the implications of the report.
Only when the main players were dead, 38 years later, could a report be published and accepted by a Prime Minister that shamed the army and the judiciary.
The past has come back to us three times this week.
An enquiry into the murder in prison of the loyalist killer at Billy Wright published its £30 million report and told us nothing we didn’t know, that Wright had been killed by a group of INLA prisoners, who had somehow acquired guns, and scaled a prison roof when a surveillance camera was conveniently switched off. But there was no government or security service involvement.
Now, some people hear a story like this and think — well, isn’t that the way of the world, you turn your back for a minute …
But most of us, hearing of the deft assassination of a man who was a major threat to the peace process, whose removal was so convenient, will sense intrigue. We can’t help it. Any novel that opened with the murder of an irrepressible killer like Wright — who was going to be back on the streets if not stopped — would have to end with a very wide circle of machination exposed.
Not in real life — yet hard not to wonder if in another 30 years, when this may be no more than just a morsel of history, a piece of paper will turn up, the connection between the assassin and — well somebody very big and safely dead.
Isn’t that what happened a few weeks ago in the report of the police ombudsman — by the way, are you counting all these reporting and investigating bodies and noting how the job of sifting the past has become so fragmented? The police ombudsman, reporting on the bombing of Claudy and the murder of nine people in 1972 found that the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, had visited the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Conway, and arranged for the transfer of the chief suspect in the bombing, a Catholic priest, Father James Chesney.
Now that couldn’t have come out when Whitelaw was alive.
Certainly not when he was in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, as Home Secretary. Unthinkable.
But years later and the new Tory top tier in government has no problem dumping on the reputation of a predecessor, any more than on the soldiers who slaughtered innocents on Bloody Sunday.
Time makes every embarrassment bearable.
And what did people think, at the very start of the peace process, when a helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing 29 people including 25 of the most senior military and police intelligence operatives monitoring the Northern Irish paramilitaries?
Brilliant material for a novel. Only one way for the story to go. Could anything so dramatic — so relevant to the big political story — have only been an accident? Well not in the movies.
The findings: that the pilots were to blame.
The lingering suspicion: that the software controlling the ‘copter was faulty. Not a pointer to clandestine devilment in high places but to negligence further up the line.
This week we hear there is to be yet another enquiry.
And when things don’t smell right and the drama and horror and relevance awakens cynicism and suspicion, these drive our curiosity and our demand for better answers.
And, if we are sometimes cynical in the wrong, that is a safer position to be in than never being cynical at all.
One bit of the past did go away this week.
Bones found in a Co Monaghan bog last month were finally confirmed as those of 57-year-old Charlie Armstrong — one of the Disappeared — killed, almost certainly, by the IRA, nearly 30 years ago.
Charlie goes into his grave this morning, a Christian burial at last in Crossmaglen. And that is the end of it.
The IRA has not owned up to the murder.
The family will not demand to know who the killer was or the circumstances. That was the undertaking they gave when they pleaded for help to find the body.
And the Commission for Victim’s Remains — another past-filtering body — does not gather forensic evidence — that’s the trade-off for paramilitary assistance.
But what was so significant about the murder of Charlie Armstrong that the IRA still has to disown the killing?
Perhaps merely the pedestrian likelihood of the killer having been a neighbour.
Perhaps a connection to someone whose political career is in need of careful protection?
Cynicism, conspiracy theories or plain common sense?
We’ll never know. We are left, as with the murder of Wright, and the carnage on the Mull of Kintyre, with an aching sense that there is more to the story that we cannot be allowed to know.
And maybe there is.
And maybe there isn’t.
Catching Up With The Past

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