Dealing With the Past

Posted By: November 06, 2013

“Dealing with the past” (how to cope with the heartache of the killings  and violence on all sides ) is one of the most sensitive and emotional issues in Ireland, north and south. Brian Feeney examines the issue. 


Brian Feeney. Irish News ( Belfast). Wenesday, November 6, 2013
HOWEVER unsatisfactory the results of the search for the ‘disappeared’ of The Troubles, it would never have made what progress it has without an amnesty for those who gave information about the location of the bodies. People conveniently forget that the legislation, north and south, which governs the procedures of the independent Commission for the Location of victims’ remains (ICLVR) includes an amnesty, an emotive word for many in the north. The hard fact is that if people want to know what happened to relatives killed in the troubles there will have to be an amnesty, otherwise those who know will take the truth to their graves.Professor Kieran McEvoy, the director of Amnesties, Prosecution and the Public interest, a project jointly run by Queen’s, university of Ulster and Healing through remembering, wrote last week about the flaws and failures in any other approach. He reminded people that there have always been amnesties in the north, including one in 1969 which benefited Ian Paisley whose activities in 1968 were expunged. The procedure which allowed the IRA to transport weaponry and explosives for decommissioning was also an amnesty. Like it or not, the unionists who signed up to the Good Friday Agreement signed up to a partial amnesty which freed all politically motivated prisoners within two years. It could have been earlier if the UVF were not so filled with hatred and vindictiveness that they condemned their own men to another year in jail rather than agree to release IRA prisoners in a year. Therein lies the problem. There are various political objectives obstructing progress on dealing with the past. The two major conflicting blockages are mirror images of each other and they are both code for vindication. One side blames everything on the IRA, acts as if there was never a Good Friday Agreement, and wants all IRA members prosecuted and jailed. The other side blames everything on the British and wants British politicians, securocrats and security forces to come clean and be exposed for fighting a secret dirty war. Neither of these objectives will ever be achieved. It must be obvious to anyone with a titter of wit that they become more remote with every passing year. Attitudes of mutual loathing and contempt therefore guarantee no progress. There is another aspect that bedevils any success and that is the parochial, ignorant, introspective view the pygmy politicians here adopt. Professor McEvoy points out that between 1979 and 2010 there have been more than 370 amnesties in different parts of the world, an average of a dozen a year, many in places where far more people died than here and where far worse atrocities were inflicted by armies or guerrilla groups. So why is the north special?

Finally, holding out for prosecutions to vindicate one view of the troubles is just silly. Witnesses to events thirty or forty years ago can’t be relied on. There is no forensic evidence. The accused remain silent. Relatives of the dead learn nothing, and in any case, if a prosecution were successful, (and McEvoy reminds us that out of 2,200 reviews by the HET only two prosecutions have succeeded), the person convicted walks[free] inside two years. The major objection to an amnesty, and it’s just another way of stating the blockage, boils down to political refusal to accept that perpetrators on ‘the other side’ get off scot free. Yet the truth is by refusing to contemplate even talk of an amnesty let alone what conditions might apply to one, all sides get off scot free.

Meanwhile as political ‘leaders’ here sit on their hands the relatives of the dead are bounced around in the victims’ pinball machine created since 1998: the police ombudsman, the HET, the PSNI, civil action in the courts, the Public Prosecution Service. It is surely clear that no one who knows what happened, or how someone died, is going to volunteer the information unless they are guaranteed immunity from prosecution as long as they reveal all they know. Why is it OK for an amnesty to be granted to people providing information on the disappeared, yet not for any other aspect of the troubles? the principle is the same: only the political outcry is missing.