Dealing With the Past

Posted By: October 05, 2013

“Dealing with the past” is one of the most serious issues in Northern Ireland . Here , Patrick Muphy gives his perspective.

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, October 5, 2013. WHAT exactly is the difficulty in dealing with the past? While some believe that a resolution on parading and flags is possible, most agree that Richard Haass will be unable to facilitate inter-party agreement on the past. (US Republicans cannot facilitate inter-party agreement on the present in their own country, but that is another story.)
The troubles here are, of course, a sensitive issue for many people and no disrespect is intended to anyone who suffered in any way during the violence. But as Stormont starts to unravel in preparation for the forthcoming elections, dealing with the past appears to have a poor future.
So what does dealing with the past mean? Why bother – and what will happen if we just ignore it?
It appears to mean that since we spent nearly forty years killing each other, we should do something about it. But within this consensus to do something lie two different agendas.
The first advocates help for victims – a term on which there is no agreed definition. The other implies that all former participants, including the two governments, must emerge with generally clean hands – which helps to explain why there is no agreement on what constitutes a victim. (There are also no agreed definitions of terrorism and legitimate violence. Without a common vocabulary, we cannot even converse about the past.)
All those engaged in past violence, or the politics which fostered it, want to be portrayed as unwilling participants. So we were all victims because no group or individual should be apportioned more blame than another. Indeed, no one was to blame. Like an earthquake, the violence just happened.
Thus dealing with the past means agreeing a version of events, which will not threaten the current political arrangements or the new political class which administers them. (This failure to achieve an agreed historical fable underpins the executive’s current inability to govern. The ghosts of Christians past haunt Stormont’s present.) So resolving the past is a theoretical ideal towards which all parties strive, confident in the knowledge that they will never get there.
Oh dear, you say, that all sounds a bit cynical. So let us assume that all parties are genuine in tackling the past. (Only the SDLP and Alliance have nothing to hide.) Even then, they face three difficulties. The first is that we can never establish the whole truth. For example, of all the participants in the war, presumably only the British Army kept personnel records. So we can never have a comprehensive list of paramilitary members or determine their level of authority, actions or assignments.
In addition, the only people who know what happened on any paramilitary
operation are those who were there. Even those who sent them cannot be sure. British intelligence controlled a number of agents in all paramilitary groups, which meant that the British government engaged in both official and unofficial (even illegal) violence. Are they likely to tell the truth?
The second difficulty is that we cannot agree what the war was about. For some it was about achieving a united Ireland. But that has now been re-written as a struggle for equality. (How do you achieve equality? Kill people.)
For others it was about retaining the union with Britain – but not real Britain, just the chocolate box image of flags and monarchs. The British claim they were here to keep the peace. (How do you achieve peace? Kill people.)
Finally, few parties can afford to condemn the past too much, because it largely fuels their electoral support.
So at least some former participants in violence are not serious about dealing with the past. Even if they were, there is no reliable mechanism for establishing the truth. By signing the Good Friday Agreement, the warring factions walked off the stage and left the rest of us to clean up the mess. Does the past matter? Yes, too many people suffered in an unnecessary war. But like the victims of most wars, they have received little recognition. We rely on the medicine of time to cure what is often incurable.
If we ignore the past, it will be left to historians to put the pieces together. But if you are old enough to remember all the troubles, you will recognise that past events are not always accurately analysed through present eyes.
So we had a forty-year sectarian bloodbath and we cannot agree what happened, or why. The reason is that, other than for the victims, silence is the most politically palatable version of the past. In war, we bury the truth with the dead.