Larkin’s logic on the past

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

The Belfast Agreement is one of the most radical peace pacts reached anywhere over the past generation, delivering a release from violence, a gradual normalisation of everyday life and a durable power-sharing government to Northern Ireland. Mutual recognition and respect for differing political identities are at its core, promising a longer term reconciliation between nationalists and unionists. That will only be achieved by other concessions, including an accounting for past atrocities and injustices allowing victims feel they have been treated fairly and openly.

The Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin’s proposal that this question is best tackled by suspending prosecutions, inquiries and inquests into Troubles-related killings up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is logically consistent with legal concessions made in reaching it, as he argues. Already there is a two -year jail limit on such convictions, while no incriminating forensic evidence is now admissible arising from those who disappeared, or from decommissioned arms. At some stage this far on from the agreement the legal process should give way to well informed and officially facilitated historical inquiry in the hope this can help reconciliation happen.

The hostile reaction to Mr Larkin’s proposals from most political parties, victims groups and government leaders in Dublin and London tell us we have not yet reached that stage, however rational the legal case might be. Dealing with the past is the most intractable question referred to the US diplomat Dr Richard Haass by the parties, compared to which compromises on parades and flags look much easier to find by his Christmas deadline. There is a brutal insensitivity in Mr Larkin’s remarks ahead of Dr Haass’s report, all the more so because competing narratives of victimhood still hold out expectations of being vindicated by it.

Many atrocities and murders remain unaccounted for by paramilitaries on both sides; and the murky involvement of the British state in collusion with loyalists leaves many extremely dissatisfied with apparent efforts to foreclose inquiry. Mr Larkin’s motives for intervening at this time inevitably invite speculation. But he makes a good case that at some stage an agreed formula must be found to deal with these legacies of the conflict; he is not proposing that the historical record be erased but only that prosecutions be given a deadline in the agreement that definitely has the potential for much deeper reconciliation.

So despite the well founded criticisms made about this initiative Mr Larkin’s courage in making it now should encourage an informed debate on how to deal with the culpability and punishment of the violence that made this such a vicious conflict. Finding a path through this question must fully engage the rest of Ireland and Britain as well.