Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making peace with the past in Northern Ireland

by Kieran McEvoy

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." William Faulkner

As with much of Faulkner's work, the context is a society struggling with a legacy of bigotry, violence and a legal and political system that failed to respect civil rights for long periods. While the parallels with the American south aren't a perfect fit, it's hard to miss Northern Ireland's ongoing struggle with its history of violence, intolerance and rights abuses. Twelve years after the Good Friday agreement, the past continues to cast a long shadow.

As Ian Cobain details, hundreds of people convicted of paramilitary offences are now appealing on the basis that they were tortured or abused into confessing. These challenges are one fragment of a confusing mosaic of processes and proposals that still dominate the headlines and local politics.

By way of illustration, a few months ago the Saville inquiry exonerated those killed by the British army on Bloody Sunday in 1972. David Cameron's moving and generous apology, apparently constructed in the face of civil service opposition, brought some closure to the families and significantly altered the mood music among republicans concerning "dealing with the past". The Wright inquiry recently found no evidence of collusion in the loyalist paramilitary's death. Two other inquiries involving alleged state collusion in murder are due to report soon.

The Historical Enquiries Team (Het), a police-led initiative, is going through the painstaking business of reinvestigating more than 3,200 conflict-related deaths. The Office of the Police Ombudsman (Oponi), the body that investigates allegations of police wrongdoing, has a backlog of conflict-related cases that it estimates will take decades to clear. The Disappeared Commission, established to deal with those killed and "disappeared" by the IRA, continues to oversee periodic digs for bodies across Ireland.

Approximately two dozen conflict-related inquests involving security force killings remain unresolved in the coroners' courts, and further civil actions such as those taken by the Omagh families are planned. Below the radar, a range of people are facilitating dialogue between former paramilitaries and victims looking to learn more about the deaths of loved ones.

In 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past, established by Tony Blair, recommended the establishment of a Legacy Commission to run for five years (a truth commission by another name), a Reconciliation Forum and various other measures concerning storytelling, remembrance and a declaration against violence for political ends. With some tweaking, essentially this report provides a way to deal with many of these issues in one place. The current government has published responses to that document but appears uncertain how to proceed.

In the current climate, it is all too easy to use finance as a smokescreen for doing nothing. In this context, however, interminable legal proceedings, the work of Het, Oponi and the rest will continue regardless, and will all cost money. To establish a new overall body would require political will, but it is a more efficient and effective way to actually manage the past. Crafting a time-limited process, engaging lawyers in order to curtail legal expenses, ensuring the voices of victims are heard and respected are all surmountable design challenges. Without such a holistic process, the drip drip of disclosures will continue to destabilise the process.

Barak Obama deployed the Faulkner quote above during his presidential campaign when the views of pastor Jeremiah Wright appeared likely to derail his presidential campaign. With intellectual rigour and moral courage, Obama transformed the issue with an incredible speech on race, the past and a vision of the future in America. Cameron has already shown himself capable of similar leadership in his response to Bloody Sunday. It is time for him to follow through on that logic and put in place a process to deal with the Northern Ireland conflict as a whole, once and for all.

Source: The Guardian, 11 October 2010

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