The arrest of Gerry Adams showed that without a process for dealing with the past we only have policing and that can deliver destabilising shocks.
This talk was first broadcast on Radio Scotland, May 10, 2014.
Unionism has been strangely inept in the face of the confident republican assertion of the value of its tradition.
We saw this in the response to the Castlederg commemoration of the IRA dead and we see it in the discussion about the Peace Centre agreed for the Maze site, which the DUP is drawing back from.
History is now at the heart of political discord in Northern Ireland but nobody is talking about what that history was or what it means.
Republicans argue that there are two narratives and that Unionists just have to learn to live with the fact that the IRA dead are as worthy of respect in this society as the fallen of the Somme.
And Unionism won’t engage with the argument.
We see now the fruits of a hope that history could be forgotten.
To be fair, even John Hume, one of the founders of the Peace Process, envisaged that a line could be drawn on the past.
All funded public art in Belfast now is anodyne, avoiding all reference to history, with the one exception of the Titanic, which seems to represent a feeling that this city has suffered, while avoiding any mention of recent grief and loss.
And in the housing estates we get localised versions of history played out in murals.
Tourist brochures here say nothing of the Troubles and for want of proper investment in Troubles tourism, which could educate thousands every year, we get vivacious amateurs cornering that market.
In publishing and drama and in broadcasting we get a general avoidance of the Troubles, largely on the understanding that no one wants to read about them anyway or see them on television. Which may be right.
But perhaps they should be encouraged to read about them and talk about them and be nudged out of an apathy about a past which defines us before ignorance about it chokes the political process.
Former IRA gunman and bomber Gerry Kelly is a prime example of a republican who is proud of his past and would repeat that past if the circumstances required it. And presumably he would, himself, be the judge of whether they did nor not. He believes that the IRA has worked wonders in transforming this society for the better. It may have been a slip of the tongue when he told Nolan that the IRA had won us the vote, but no one picked him up on it. It’s as if engaging with the detail of the Troubles would be the most tedious route to take in any discussion.
But if we avoid that discussion, the narratives of the paramilitaries and their marvellous achievements will prevail.
If Unionism doesn’t want this, it should not only be campaigning for a museum at the Maze but getting involved in shaping it.
I would go further and build a substantial exhibition displaying every element of the Troubles.
Not that we should be working to an official version, something Mike Nesbitt seems to want, just the inclusion of every possible aspect of the story.
For the best answer to Gerry Kelly or the sentimental Loyalists is simply the fullest possible audit of the Troubles; an account of who did what. We have the closest thing to this in the book, Lost Lives.
But I am thinking of something like the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis Tennessee which provides a walk through history of racism in the southern states, video loops of newsreels, a bus like the one Rosa Parks refused to get off, posters and letters, leading to the balcony on which King died.
I would have the prison cell with the smeared walls. I would have models showing what a kneecapping looks like. I would have a fearsome paratrooper with blackened face kicking in a door. I would have the tally of actions to show the human complexity, all of which refutes the nonsense that this was a clash of military powers. I would have images of the Shankill Butchers, of the market stalls and counterfeited goods, of the honey trap women who lured soldiers to their deaths on the promise of sex, of the ordinary businesses blown up, the hair dressers and the bars, the taxi drivers killed in ‘dial a target’ operations. I would have the snipers and the bomb makers, the mercury tilt-switch bombs, the pirate radio stations, the letters and magazines and posters, the police and army suicides, the orphans and the ill.
I would play the taped confessions those shot as informers had to make before they died, and highlight the evidence on those tapes that the victims were rehearsed in what to say.
I would show the bombs with their timers nailed down so that couriers couldn’t stop them going off. I would show how half the IRA dead in the first years killed themselves carrying those bombs or with guns that went off in cleaning or training.
I would show what an affliction paramilitarism was on the communities that had to endure it.
I would have the journalism that got it wrong and the journalism that got it right, the smug politicians and the crafty ones, those implicated by action and by inaction. And the churches and the mediators and the go betweens, some with clean hands some not. The tricks of Special Branch and the cynicism.
We have tried leaving the past behind and it hasn’t worked.
Better now to resurrect the whole thing in a museum so that people know what it was that happened here.
And sure, tourists would pay to see it, wouldn’t they?
One of the shocks of the last week was that when our politicians are most exercised they are least credible.
It’s is just a fact of life in the new Northern Ireland that people have switched off their interest in the passionate wrangles across the divide. Those who have stopped caring may be naive and hopelessly disengaged, or they may be the hope for the future. One thing is plain though, when Peter Robinson is spluttering, red in the face, and cold eyed Gerry Kelly is chewing a brick, many of us, perhaps most of us, cringe and look away.
One of the most surreal moments of this turbulent week was the switch of themes on the Nolan show on Wednesday night. Stephen magisterially silenced the round table raging about letters to On The Runs to introduce Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno. And a show that had started with portents of imminent political calamity ended up with the corpulent presenter break dancing on the floor.
If the two themes fitted together it could only be from the perspective that Arlene Foster duelling with the Sinn Fein appointed hit man was light entertainment too. And it was.
Arlene was on sparkling form. She has never been seen to rage so grandiloquently, with such verve and speed of riposte. A Bruno type critique of her would say, ‘You were magnificent darling, and your partner in this dance to the death was so sultry and simmering with such suppressed rage. Oh you killer, Mr Kelly. You could fell me with a look.’
This had all started with the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey of Creeslough, charged with murdering soldiers and horses in Hyde Park in 1982. Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that a letter to Mr Downey, telling him, wrongly, that he was not going to be getting his collar felt, was effectively a pardon. He said that it was more important to defend the credibility of the public servants who had signed the letter, assuring him that he was not a wanted man, than to seek justice by proceeding with the charge. And he said it so well that the prosecution declined to appeal.
This was a shock for the DUP and others.
The immediate implications seemed truly shocking, for it was revealed that 187 people had received such letters. These were people who had come forward to say that they were living away from home, out of the reach of the law, on the assumption that the police wanted to arrest them.
Now, if you or I asked the police if they wanted us for a crime, say a murder, we’d expect that to raise their suspicions about us. But if you have been an old provie, it seems more likely to trigger a compassionate response and an impulse to absolution.
The DUP came out accusing the government of lying to them and others, like former Policing Board vice chair Dennis Bradley, emerged quickly to say they had known about the scheme all along and that they understood that the DUP had too.
Peter Robinson said that he would resign if there wasn’t a full judicial inquiry. Arlene Foster over-interpreted this for Nolan as a determination to resign if the letters were not rescinded.
Sinn Fein fielded Alex Maskey and Gerry Kelly to say this was all a fuss over nothing. These letters constituted individual arrangements with the NIO. No one had the right to see them, but they weren’t pardons, as such.
The Downey letter, however, had clearly worked to the same effect as an actual pardon, making a prosecution impossible, but the answer to that was that it had been issued by mistake.
There was another telling media moment when Wendy Austin yesterday spoke to Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone and journalist Chris Ryder and others. She assumed this was Ms Stone’s first experience of Stormont being on the brink. The point: it is old hat to the rest of us. For years this was all Stormont did: teeter.
The difficulty for Peter Robinson this time, despite his demand for an inquiry having been met, was that few really believed the substance of his grievance.
Facebook started to throw up evidence of past knowledge of OTR compromises.
The Queen’s mercy had been extended, paradoxically, to the killers of Captain Herbert Westmacott, fourteen years ago! And the BBC had reported it. Jail breakers Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Sloan were told they wouldn’t even have to complete their two year sentences. The largesse of the government towards IRA men on the run had clearly extended to actual convicts, not just suspects. And everybody knew.
But there was evidence too that other old provies got no bye-ball, like Seamus Kearney, convicted in December of killing RUC Reserve Constable John Proctor as he visited his wife and new-born son in hospital.
There is obviously no blanket pardoning; but it is equally obvious that letters of clarification function like pardons when they are read in court, if they have been mistakenly issued, that is, to someone who is being sought by the police, like John Downey.
At least we will have an explanation of all that in May. It will have to be a good one.
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.
Signed:- Malachi O’Doherty