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Archive for November, 2013

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.

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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.

Picket

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.

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