Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Clem McCartney


  The last week has particularly focused our minds on the past—specifically on events and incidents during the last 30 years. It is not surprising that questions are regularly arising about what happened in the last 30 years of Northern Ireland. it is a natural human need, perhaps even an inevitable need, that in trying to move forward we have to deal with the past. The past has an impact on our present as we try to create our future

  This is not easy and statements made about the past in the last few days have provoked strong but very contradictory responses and emotions. Martin McGuinness made a statement to the Saville enquiry acknowledging that in 1972 he was second in command of the Irish Republican Army in Derry. The European Court of Human Rights pronounced that the British Government had acted wrongly in the way it had dealt with the deaths of a number of republicans who had been killed by the security forces, including those killed in the attack on Loughgall police station in May 1987, and therefore had violated their rights and should pay compensation to their families. Only a little while earlier new revelations about Irish Government involvement in providing arms to the north in 1969 opened up that issue again.

  There have been both public and private responses. Those who have republican sympathises feel vindicated by the ruling of the Court of Human Rights and applaud McGuinness's willingness to speak out Those who suffered at the hands or republicans and those hostile to republicans are angry and more detatched observers are baffled that the state will have to pay compensation for those who were going out to attack the state. These conflicting reactions and emotions are not being processed by society in any systematic way. It has been suggested that Unionists are unwilling to use the courts in the way that Nationalist have, or to call for committees of inquiry. Individuals can write to the newspapers or ring up Talkback and try to give most prominence to their interpretation of the incidents. Unionist Assembly members have brought a motion for a debate in the Assembly on Martin McGuinness's statement. Each community tries to impose its feelings and interpretations on events. Even if it is clear what interpretation each community wants to put on the past it is not clear what would satisfy each community and what they a want and need in order to be at ease with a past which is far from pleasant or easy.

  But in the midst of the discussion and argument, more significantly the events of the last week and reactions to them have both shifted the debate about how we deal with the past and demonstrated what might be helpful. When we began to talk about the past, we focused on atrocities which have been committed and assumed that the appropriate starting point is the needs of the survivors of those atrocities. It was acknowledged that the survivors need to be helped to go through a grieving process and various ways to help that process have been discussed. Considerable attention has been paid to the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the example of South Africa. While such a step might be what the victims deserve as a moral right, there is no consensus that it would meet their needs or be effective in terms of the healing of the wider community. One view is that it would be impossible to reach any agreed understanding. In other countries where a Truth Commission has the established the main allegation has been the oppression of the people state while in the Northern Ireland situation, parties have had conflicting allegiances and the majority of the population have accepted the role of the state. It might also not fit with the local culture where we are expected to "thole" our loss and public displays of grief are not encouraged. From this angle the emphasis on providing victims with a special space might make it even harder to cope with the loss.

  We need to bear in mind that the survivors of atrocities and society as a whole are seldom satisfied when justice is done or when compensation is paid. In a recent review of experience of dealing with the past, Roberta Bacic who worked with the Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Corporation in Chile and writes about confronting the past, has pointed out that the big question which people need to have answered is "Why?" How can we understand why things happened the way they did? How can we understand why people did the things they did? How can we explain why something terrible happened to me or someone close to me? When we understand then we can start to think what is the appropriate way to move forward and what help is needed in that process.

  Those who have suffered want to know why it happened to them and their loved ones. Were they deliberately picked out for torture or death? What justification was there for what happened to them? They need to be reassured that they were not in some way to blame for what happened. Why did the perpetrator act in this way and is there any explanation for it?

  For those who have taken an active role in the conflict or inflicted harm on others the question is still "Why" but it takes a different form. Some find it difficult to understand why they did some of the actions they did. They may worry that in some situations they went beyond their own boundaries of acceptable behaviour and they need to know why that was. Others are confident that they can justify their actions but they want the rest of the community and the wider world to know why they acted as they did. This question faces both members of paramilitary groups, the security forces and the politically active, though they may try to push the question aside.

  Society as a whole also needs to reach some understanding of how their community became embroiled in hostility and conflict in order to begin the process of rebuilding a society where all sections can feel at home. Was it a war? How could ordinary decent people tolerate and even encourage actions which were outside the normal limits of socially acceptable behaviour. Society as a whole does not at present have an agreed understanding of what people did, never mind the deeper question of the motivation for what was done, and how it was justified. If such an understanding could be establishing we might then be able to reach some consensus on what, in the circumstances of the time, was justifiable behaviour

  What we have seen happening over the last few years are sections of society trying to deal with the "why" question in various ways but which other sections of the community do not understand or accept. When we erect memorials to those killed in the conflict we are making statements and contributions to the debate about the past, whether it is Castlereagh Borough Council erecting a memorial window to those killed at Le Mon or a memorial to the Ulster Special Constabulary or the IRSP erecting a monument in Derry City Cemetery to INLA members. They believe that these people should be honoured and they not only do so but try to make a statement to the wider public. Those who go to the European Court of Human Rights are hoping for a ruling which will justify their view of history and if the court finds in their favour they will assert that their view has been vindicated. The other side of the community watch what happens and are hurt and angry if the court appears to challenge their view of history and to them the petitioners to the court appear to be using special pleading. So the present argumentative approach to establishing history is not really helping to find a shared view, whether or not such an understanding is possible.. Each section of the community is hoping that its view will dominate and those who do not agree will concede. They may concede publicly but the hurt and confusion will not go away and it may fester for many years to come. So it is worth trying to find a shared approach to confronting the past which all sections of the community can identify with.

  When Martin McGuinness made his statement last week he neither apologised or justified. He described. At a future point he will be questioned by the Saville Enquiry and it may be possible to know more about why he took the action he took and even why he was in the IRA. Some people reacted very negatively to the information that he was a senior member of the IRA but no one who says he should have stayed silent. It is better that the information is now in the public domain.

  It has demonstrated that explanation on its own is the first step in jointly confronting the past. But how can this be done. McGuinness's statement is only one piece of the total picture. There is much more that needs to be explained and the best way forward might be to shift away from the idea that the starting point is the suffering of victims. Morally right though that may be, it may be mole effective and more widely acceptable to initiate a process for determining an authoritative view of what has happened, focusing on the actions or inactions, and the underlying motivations. All sections of the community should contribute: political parties in Britain and Ireland, paramilitary organisations, the security forces, the media, churches, trade unions and other organs of civil society. It would be important to include the whole spectrum of society. In relation to each group one would want to explore as far as possible the following themes:

    —  an account of what each group involved in the conflict has done;

    —  why it acted in the way it did, both at a strategic and specific level;

    —  what was its motivation and the motivation of its members;

    —  what was the impact on sections of the community and society as a whole;

    —  what if any of its strategies and actions it would now consider as beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

  The primary focus is therefore not on individual incidents but of course individual incidents would demand attention and provide an important illumination of the overall approach of that group. This investigation would very naturally lead to many of the concerns of the survivors of specific incidents particularly when consideration is given to the impact of actions and policies.

  The concept might be described as a Commission of record, which would interview representatives of all the relevant groups and analyse their perceptions with them. It would produce a substantial report of the process and findings and of course the detailed records of its deliberations would remain available for research and study. But there are of course many questions about how such a process could be implemented What kind of body would be able to undertake this process? It is easy to assume the Commission would need to be a statutory body to have the necessary authority and in particular the power to sub poene witnesses. However if the process is devised in co-operation with all the relevant parties and they are willing to trust the process and make a commitment to full disclosure it might ensure a more co-operative approach. Who would be acceptable members of such a Commission? Would hearings be in public? The issue of immunity will also need to be discussed. It may be difficult to obtain good disclosure if there is no immunity for groups and their members. Would it be possible to achieve an agreed record? The Tower Museum is one example where the politicians on Derry City Council were able to agree a portrayal of the history of the city including its recent past, though there were of course some areas of concern. That process made a major contribution to relationships in the city. An agreed statement of the perspective of each party and its analysis of the course of events would be possible. It is easier to imagine such agreement when we accept that most people across the community have acted in ways which seemed right and honourable to them, although there have of course been wicked acts which are hard for anyone to explain. It can be conceded that it would be difficult to reach agreed conclusions which provide a consensus of what was justifiable and what was not justifiable. This is why it is not proposed that this stage of the process of reconciliation should attempt to determine justice or assume that it could achieve reconciliation directly. Those would be later next steps—the search for a social consensus within society, which we have seen is already being contested in an ad hoc and competitive way.

  It is not proposed to provide a blueprint for how the tribunal could be established because it would function best if it was established through negotiation with all the relevant actors and had their support. One way to take the process forward would be to establish a group to carry out a feasibility study, consult widely and develop a proposal which could then be implemented. This group should be small but have access to the political parties and other relevant groups. It would not need statutory authority but could be established as an independent body in order to develop the process. The events of the last few days indicate that the time is ripe for such a step.

7 May 2001

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