There are areas I feel uncomfortable talking about and one is, how we should respond to the victims of our Troubles. My unease springs from the fact that I’ve been lucky enough not to have lost a loved one, and when you haven’t suffered that kind of pain you don’t really know what’s involved. That said, there are a few general points worth making on the topic, even for someone as ignorant as I am of the suffering involved.
1. The Belfast Telegraph today reports that Sinn Féin have agreed to take part in talks about dealing with ‘the legacy of the Troubles’. Since the British Secretary of State is chairing the talks, I doubt very much if Sinn Féin will be happy to proceed very far with this arrangement. I hope they don’t. By taking the chair, Paterson is implicitly offering the old lie that our Troubles are about a pair of crazy tribes with Britain the civilized referee, detached, above all this hatred and killing.
2. Some of the combatants involved in the Troubles will be willing to tell the truth about their part in particular killings, others won’t. This applies on all sides, but nowhere with more completeness than on the British side. You may point to David Cameron’s apology for Bloody Sunday as contradiction; but keep in mind that the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost the huge sums it did because the British government fought with fist and boot to avoid releasing any documents which might show their forces in a bad light. We still don’t know who were the people killed the fourteen shot dead on Bloody Sunday. And that’s just one example. Britain has cast itself in the role of peace-keeper not combatant in our Troubles, so how can a party with clean hands be expected to have anything other than chairmanship to contribute?
3. The loved ones of different victims have different needs. Some simply wish to have the truth recounted; others demand justice. Both are understandable stances, but is it sensible to allow those who have suffered to be the ones who decide if the perpetrators will be punished? Being so emotionally involved, they are the least likely to produce a dispassionate decision on the matter. And justice requires dispassion.
4. We pride ourselves on how our peace process has been a model for other conflicts in other areas of the world. Are there any models from elsewhere and the past that we might follow in coping with victim pain? And don’t say “South Africa”: there are a lot of people in South Africa profoundly unhappy with their truth and reconciliation format.
5. It’s a hard thing to say but it may be that time will provide the answer. Not that time will produce a blueprint to be followed but that time will pass, those who have suffered will grow old and die, and eventually the pain now felt will diminish very, very slowly. That’s what happened with the Irish Civil War, a brief but truly brutal conflict. It’s a poor solution but maybe the only one we can really rely on.