There can be no Oprah-ification of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Some things are better left bottled up

by Kevin Meagher

Sabres are the only weapons that have never been decommissioned in Northern Ireland. The reward for Peter Robinson rattling his, has been the creation of a “judge-led” review of how the British Government has been dealing with Irish republican “On-The-Runs” for the past decade.

This follows the collapse of the Old Bailey trial last month against John Downey, charged with the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982 in which four soldiers were killed. It brought to light the scheme by which 180 or so republicans like Downey who had evaded the authorities were sent letters confirming, in effect, that they would not be prosecuted on returning home to Northern Ireland.

For republicans, this is merely an extension of the prisoner release programme which took place after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and no big deal. For Robinson, it amounts to a secret deal letting untried killers off the hook – and Ulster unionism doesn’t let any chance to yell “sell out” pass it by.

Yet what the government has conceded is a long way short of the “full judicial review” (a la Lord Saville’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday) that Robinson initially called for last Wednesday. According to the published terms of reference, the as yet unnamed judge will be tasked with producing “a full public account of the operation and extent” of the policy for dealing with On the Runs and to “determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors”.

So far, so anodyne; but the third aim is incredibly badly-scoped, asking the judge “to make recommendations as necessary on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the Inquiry.” This seems to be an open invitation to speculate about whether the policy of soft-pedalling on pursuing former IRA suspects is right or not.

This is entirely pointless. Dwelling on the political, legal and moral accommodations that have been made – on all sides – tells us nothing. The odd bout of theatrical amnesia aside, Northern Ireland’s politicians are all big boys and girls and know that all sorts of deals have been made to get this show on the road – and to keep it there.

This last week has simply revealed part of the internal wiring of Northern Ireland’s peace process in all its cold, functional reality. This particular bit – a go-slow in bringing prosecutions against ONRs – is, quite simply, the price for guaranteeing the cessation of the IRA’s campaign, the decommissioning of its weapons and the embrace of constitutional politics (given released prisoners and OTRs like Downing are among the peace process’s biggest supporters). It is a price that should be paid willingly.

The inquiry report is expected by the end of May, conveniently timed, it seems, to avoid the European elections. This allows Robinson, ever mindful of the threat he faces from sizable elements within Ulster unionism that would happily rip-up the Good Friday Agreement, to get the political credit for bashing republicans and the British Government (unionists have an odd relationship with the Mother state).

Yet the broader issue remains: how does Northern Ireland deal with the past? This was, of course, the focus of talks led by US diplomat Richard Haas, which broke apart without agreement before Christmas. The usual catch-all remedy is establishing some sort of truth and reconciliation process.

However, the prospect of an ‘Oprah-ification’ of Northern Ireland’s Troubles seems an unlikely bet, for temperamental as much as political reasons. The process may have worked in post-apartheid South Africa, with a new state essentially replacing an old, discredited one; but British politics has been at pains throughout the Troubles to maintain a veneer of ‘business as usual’. Ministers do not want to cast an unflinching light on the murkier abuses carried out by the British state in its back yard. Not that the hard men of loyalism and republicanism are much given to public emoting either. The whole thing would descend into unbridgeable rancour.

Instead, Northern Ireland’s history will continue to be bottled up. Its politicians energies’ are therefore better spent trying not to let the past upend the present; much like the approach the Spanish took after their civil war. Some things are best left unsaid and the price of continuing peace may well leave some injustices unresolved. There are simply too many arch reminders of a past that upsets the families and friends of those who were killed or maimed, as this last week has amply demonstrated.

But this process of moving on would be a whole lot easier if politicians like Robinson didn’t keep picking at the scabs.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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9 Responses to “There can be no Oprah-ification of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Some things are better left bottled up”

  1. swatantra says:

    Better out than in; better than sweeping things under the carpet.
    But that doesn’t mean we don’t condemn the killers on both sides, it just means we let the people out there know who they are, but don’t prosecute them, and then as Robinson is suggesting, give them a pardon. What is the point of that? Thats just pretty pointless. Truth, but Reconciliation.

  2. John reid says:

    There’s plenty wrong here, but the point that it’s not like South Africa, I’d true,as they didn’t have the vote, and by accepting something mainly wrong, they moved on, regarding the Troubles although the way Protestant political groups treated Catholics was terrible, the RUC were independent in prosecuting and trying to stop, loyalist attrocities, and the Army were sent into NI n1969 and although Bloody Sunday was a travesty the way that the calls for prosecutions against those soldiers is being allowed and the 1982 bomb trial has be stopped is awful, how can Sinn Fein consider this case as being like the releases after the Good Friday agreement, the man hasn’t even faced trial yet, as socialists we should back the SDLP, and let them work with the unionist, for justice.

  3. paul barker says:

    The point about The Peace Process is that its its still stuck at stage one – The “lets all try not to kill each other” stage. Moving towards a decent society is going to be a long, hard road.
    The Spanish are still not “Talking” about their War 75 years after.

  4. Ex Labour says:

    Whilst being happy to pardon the OTR’s and other IRA criminals for past atrocities our (Labour) government, pressured by the IRA’s political masters seem content to pursue British servicemen for past incidents. Unfortunately this is being continued by the current government.

    Surely in the interests of fairness and natural justice any inquiry or legal pursuit of servicemen should be stopped and a blanket immunity provided much the same as for the IRA ?

    If this is not done then the IRA have won, and Labour, Blair and now Cameron should hang their head in shame.

  5. swatantra says:

    I don’t agree with pardons. Its like saying, you’ve been a very very bad boy, but we’ll forgive you. In which case its pointless prosecuting a case, expensive as it is and traumatic, if they know they’ll be a pardon at the end of it. Instead just make it known that so and so were suspected of heinous crimes, but because of the ‘Agreement’ we’ll grant an Amnesty, just to get things moving again, moving forward. I know its tough on some families but thats life and you have tomove on and not be fixed in a time zone for 30 years.

  6. John reid says:

    I can’t fault Ex labours view and Swantntra ,you’ve given me hope,that I’m not the only one who feels this way,

  7. Henrik says:

    Great emoting, there, comrades. Let’s look at the reality. The Troubles dragged on for over 30 years and cost a load of blood and treasure to bring to an end. No-one in particular has any reason to be proud of the role they played in them, no-one has any reason whatsoever to want any illumination on the backroom negotiations which eventually led to the GFA. Proper politics is often best played in the dark and the long and tortuous process which led to the GFA was nothing, if not proper politics.

    The Spanish approach – draw a line under it and move on as best you can – strikes me as both pragmatic and sensible. At the end of the day, the wishes of the majority of the population of the Province are being respected, in that it continues to be part of the UK, the abuses which led to the horrible events of 1968 and 1969 are pretty much eliminated and mechanisms are in place both to allow a locally devolved administration to exist and to function rather well.

    It’ll be another generation – at least – before anyone’s ready to look too hard at history and probably another generation beyond that before the history is available to look at.

  8. bob says:

    Why not get rid of the ‘convention’ of mainland parties not campaigning for election in Northern Ireland, therefore taking religion out of politics. This is the only time I would agree with parachuting candidates into seats, which may allow people to vote on a political not religious bias. Maybe young Mr Straw and the not so young Mr Kinnock would be interested in standing.

  9. Tafia says:

    Why not get rid of the ‘convention’ of mainland parties not campaigning for election in Northern Ireland, therefore taking religion out of politics.

    You would lose your deposit is why. The single defining subject in Northern Irish politics is unionism vs nationalism. The overwhelming majority of catholics are nationalist and will not vote for a pro-union party. Likewise the overwhelming majority of protestants are unionist.

    John Reid above mentions the SDLP. The SDLP are moderate nationalists (as opposed to Sinn Fein who are extreme nationalists ans now bigger than the SDLP) – but ultimately they are nationalist. Overwhelmingly catholic, not the slightest interested in a ‘UK’ or remaining in it.

    I lived over there and my daughters were born there and I still have family and friends there. If you ever think NHS, education, defence etc etc will be more important electorally than the border then you are barking at the moon.

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