Both the recent political impasse and the possible impact of Brexit on the peace process have highlighted how Northern Ireland deals, or doesn’t, with its past. Eamonn O’Kane writes that little progress been made on this front, something that undermines the task of governing the present. He argues it is time to decouple some of the issues and adopt a different approach.
The legacy of the Troubles is casting a long shadow over the present political situation in Northern Ireland. Often hailed as a remarkable success story of conflict resolution, the peace process succeeded in achieving the objectives of (pretty much) ending the violence and enabling power to be devolved back to a Northern Ireland government. The current situation is, however, once more problematic.
After almost a decade of devolved government, the edifice collapsed in January 2017; devolved government was once again suspended, talks on reconstructing it are stalled, and there is speculation that direct rule will be reintroduced. Though not the immediate cause of the collapse of the Executive, one issue that is proving both destabilising and irresolvable is how to deal with the past. This is not for the want of trying. The issue has been on the agenda since at least immediately before the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, with the report by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, We Will Remember Them. Since then there has been the Eames-Bradley Report, Hass-O’Sullivan Process, and the Stormont House Agreement. There has also been the work done by numerous charities and victim/survivors groups.
The failure to agree to implement what the Hass-O’Sullivan report called the ‘architecture’ to deal with the past, which apparently commanded some level of support amongst the parties in the talks, is illustrative of the problems that bedevil the exercise. The differing interpretations of what happened in Northern Ireland; the causes and consequences of the conflict; and the relationship between the peace that was achieved and the justice that many feel was not, make dealing with the legacy of the conflict problematic.
Many of the main actors believe that other parties are seeking to focus the process on the areas that they see as most pressing (or that best serves their own constituencies and narratives) whilst seeking to downplay or stifle developments in areas that they see as less pressing or more problematic. The issue also potentially offers parties ‘excuses’ as to why progress is not forthcoming on governing Northern Ireland. The past in Northern Ireland is not simply what previously occurred; it is a divisive and contested terrain.
For example, republicans press strongly for investigations into killings by the state that are currently stalled in the outstanding legacy inquests, some of which go back over 40 years. Unionists and the British Government believe that this attempt to focus on the killings by the state is disproportionate, given that they account for only around 10% of Troubles-related deaths, and underplays the actions of republican paramilitaries which accounted for 60% of deaths and the loyalists which accounts for 30%.
Unionists and opinion in some quarters at Westminster has been angered by recent decisions to prosecute former members of the security forces for killings during their service in the 1970s. This resulted in the House of Commons’ Defence Select Committee recently calling for ‘…the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces’. This proposal has been strongly criticized by republicans, nationalists, and some human rights groups.
In turn, republicans and nationalists believe that the government’s so-called ‘security veto’ is an unacceptable attempt to prevent information about state actions in killings from entering the public domain. (The Government has said that it will disclose all information it has on outstanding cases to the proposed new Historical Investigations Unit, but reserves the right to refuse permission for some information to be passed onto the families on security grounds).
The log-jams that have resulted from these inter-related disputes between the parties have meant that there has been no progress in other proposed areas, such as the information recovery process, an oral history archive, a timeline of events to be drawn up by academics or the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. As a result, the hope of starting a comprehensive process that will lead to wider agreement of what happened, and why, during the Troubles has made little headway.
Where, then, does this leave the task of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland? What is clear is that not only is there little progress in dealing with the past but also that it is undermining the task of governing the present. It may be time to try and decouple some of the issues and take a different approach. Arguably, there is simply not the political will or the shared analysis to construct all the proposed ‘architecture’ at the present time. Some issues will need to be dealt with sooner rather than later, not least the proposed strengthening of support services for victims and survivors.
Beyond that, there are legal obligations on the state to investigate unsolved killings, regardless of who carried them out, so some progress on legacy is necessary. These must be taken forward in tandem, to try and address some of the issues noted above. But in many respects, the peace process in Northern Ireland was built upon prioritising peace over justice, and given the agreements that underpin it, it is unlikely there will be many future prosecutions or long prison sentences for Troubles-related killings.
It may be time to examine the issues, in part, in relation to the kind of arguments suggested in David Rieff’s book, In Praise of Forgetting. For the thousands of individuals impacted by the violence of the Troubles it is, of course, impossible to ‘forget’ their suffering or the pain they have experienced, and, as noted, they should be supported to deal with the consequences. But hopes that all sides in Northern Ireland would openly and equally engage in a truth recovery process are unlikely to be fulfilled.
Given that the past is still used by many parties to justify current actions and that interpretations of the past are refracted through (self-justifying) prisms to explain party and group actions and preferences, the opportunity for a truth recovery process to, as Michael Ignatieff once suggested, ‘narrow the range of permissible lies’ is currently limited. The outcome of the conflict remains contested and, as Rieff has argued, ‘when there is no clear winner both sides may be able to sustain their own incompatible memories’. Although it is highly problematic, Rieff claimed that, eventually, ‘there comes a time when the need to get to the truth should no longer be assumed to trump all other considerations’.
Maybe Northern Ireland might have to reflect upon the likelihood of making significant progress on all aspects of dealing with the past and seek, instead, to try and disentangle some of the individual, legal, political, and societal strands of the exercise, however difficult and far from ideal this may be. The past must continue to be examined and academic work may help in ‘narrowing the range of permissible lies’ but it does not appear that an ‘official’ process will be agreed or prove possible in the short-term. As it stands, the quest for it might delay wider political progress, and even give parties an ‘excuse’ to explain why such progress is not happening.
About the Author
Eamonn O’Kane is Reader in Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He is currently writing a book on the Peace Process for MUP. This blog is based on a paper presented at the recent Political Studies Association Conference in Glasgow.