Counting the cost of dealing with our past

Posted By: December 04, 2015

Denis Bradley. Irish News(Belfast). Friday, December 4, 2015

It is clear that our troubled past keeps running into brick walls. In the world of
politics, when something doesn’t happen over a protracted time, it can be put down
to a lack of political will. The past is the most political of issues and the
failure to deal with it is to be found in the entrails of politics.

And even that statement needs qualified because there has never been a time when the
past wasn’t being dealt with – but always within the criminal justice system.
Police, courts, prisons, inquiries have been one of our main industries. The amount
of time and money that go into issues that arise from the past are enormous and if
they continue to be dealt with by the criminal justice system alone, will continue
to be so for the next 30 to 40 years.

Last week we were told that the police will spend £12million on the Stakeknife case
alone. The simplistic argument that the past is best left in the past always ignores
that reality and those costs.

The governments have put an end to inquiries and with the exception of some
dissidents, the prisons are populated by ordinary criminals.

The past now falls, almost exclusively, into the laps of the police and the courts,
much to the annoyance of both. They have publicly expressed their desire to be free
from the burden and have articulated their disappointment at the failure to
construct an alternative way.

But there is no indication that the governments or the political parties need worry
about the malleability of the various elements of the criminal justice system. A few
extra million here and a few extra million there will keep the level of protest at
an acceptable level.

Strangely enough, it was the British government who initiated the debate on the
‘past’ about 10 years ago. The motivation was mostly, maybe exclusively, fear. It
certainly was not out of empathy with the thousands who described themselves as
victims or survivors.

Those were the years when the new political institutions were still fragile and
there was a fear within government that something might come out of the past that
would bring down the whole shooting gallery. They were also the years when the new
policing arrangements were fragile. Government was anxious that the PSNI was given
time to embed itself into the more peaceful climate.

Two fortunes had been spent on the move from the RUC to the PSNI and the past could
possibly have been a burden too far. In those years the government was prepared to
look at alternatives.

Ten years on, the ghosts of the past have not blown the institutions down and the
PSNI appears well enough embedded to juggle the past with the present.

The British now appear confident enough to protect their own to the detriment of an
overarching and comprehensive approach.

Throwing the irrelevance of national security into the pot at the 11th hour is an
indication of their judgment that this issue is not as unpredictable and dangerous
as it was 10 years ago. They are not alone.

The DUP’S priority is the RUC, the UDR and to a lesser degree the British army. Sinn
Fein’s priority is IRA members. After their priorities are favourably attended to,
both parties are happy to be champions of the victims and survivors. And it should
be noticed that every new round of negotiations waters down or scatters the
coherency of the original proposals as to how to address the past.

Whatever deal is now ultimately patched together will have all the characteristics
of the proverbial quilt.

And the victims have to take some responsibly for the mess. Their failure to look
beyond their own case or their own political bias has allowed the political parties
and the governments to be less than completely committed.

While the politicians made the necessary compromises to maintain power and to move
out of conflict, the victims’ community stuck to the purity of their own cases,
definitions and needs, often encouraged by the same politicians who were making
pragmatic compromises. There was little learning from the scriptures that innocence
or hurt does not debar people from political astuteness.

It is hard to predict where it is all going to go except for the certainty that if
the past remains within criminal justice it will cost a fortune and we will be
caught up in the past for a long time into the future.