It's time for hard truths

 

The Consultative Group on the Past is seeking to achieve the 'almost impossible' by persuad ing every side, including the IRA and the British state, to tell all about the Troubles, writes Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor

Exactly 16 years ago on Thursday last, an IRA landmine exploded at Teebane Crossroads, killing eight Protestant workmen as they were returning home by van from Lisanelly British army base, where they were carrying out repairs. On Wednesday night in Ballymena, Co Antrim, the eve of the anniversary, the brother of one of the eight victims reminded the Consultative Group on the Past of the significance of January 17th for many families in Northern Ireland. He gave his name at the meeting but asked that The Irish Times not use it.

Tomorrow, a memorial service will be held at Teebane on the main Omagh to Cookstown Road, as it is every year, but several of the relatives won't be there, the man told the meeting, because even this far removed from the slaughter "it is just too painful, the agony is still there".

"Victims need more help than people realise," he said. "We are still tortured by our memories." Anyone attending any of the six painful public meetings on the past this week in Northern Ireland would be in no doubt of the accuracy of his statement.

Just 50 people attended the meeting at the Tullyglass House Hotel in Ballymena, most of them unionist in their politics and thinking. And most, hardly surprisingly, were appalled by recent speculation that the consultative group would propose an amnesty for everyone caught up in the violence and that it would characterise the Troubles as a "war".

In Derry the previous night, the group heard one man describe how his brother, an IRA member, was shot dead by the British army in the early 1970s, and how his brother believed he was "fighting a war".

Ballymena and Derry were venues for two of six public meetings held by the consultative group this week. Other meetings were in Enniskillen, Armagh, Omagh and Bangor, with an average attendance of about 80 each night. The consultative group has also held 90 private meetings with organisations and individuals, many of them members of victims' groups.

The public meetings were hardly large gatherings, but as one group source said, "between the public and private meetings we've heard the people we've needed to hear. People who aren't directly affected tend not to get involved; they just want to move on." Whatever about the conflicting views of the unionist in Ballymena and the republican in Derry on how to describe the conflict, there was no denying that both, many years on, were still carrying the pain of losing brothers. These are just two of thousands of other stories of pain and loss, many of which consultative group members have heard at first hand publicly and privately over recent months. Certainly, at the public meetings this week it was clear just how raw the suffering is.

OVER 3,600 PEOPLE were killed in the Troubles and an estimated 40,000 wounded or maimed. One of the main remits of the group is to make recommendations that will, as Lord Eames described it, help Northern Ireland, and Ireland generally, move "out of the darkness" of the past.

They face a huge undertaking, as was evident from the meetings, where there was major disagreement over issues such as a possible amnesty, how to define the conflict, what constitutes a victim, and possible models for helping establish the truth about the past.

Lord Eames has described their job as "almost impossible". But they are ambitious. They are hoping to devise a report that will free up policing from its current 40 per cent focus on past crimes, and that could create a cathartic affect that would provide real ease and comfort for victims and the bereaved.

Proposing a model or models for finding the truth isn't the major challenge for the consultative group, because there are many ideas under consideration, ranging from variations of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to something more modest that would allow those willing to provide information to do so publicly or privately. The real challenge is persuading all the combatant groups to tell the truth. And there's the rub.

THE FORMER CHURCH of Ireland primate,Lord Eames, and the former vice-chairman of the Policing Board, Denis Bradley, are co-chairmen of the disparate group charged with this daunting task. The other members are: David Porter of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland; Prof James Mackey, a retired professor of theology at Queen's University Belfast; the Rev Lesley Carroll from Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church in north Belfast; former rugby international Willie John McBride; Elaine Moore of the Drug and Alcohol Northlands Centre in Co Derry; and former Armagh senior football captain and now BBC pundit Jarlath Burns.

For this interesting cross-section of northern society, their main consultation work concludes next Friday. In a few weeks' time they head into secret conclave outside Ireland to attempt to reach agreement on an outline report on how to tackle the legacy of the Troubles. This could be a cathartic few days too for the members themselves, because they will be wrestling with difficult issues. They are representative of the two traditions and, as they all admit, they carry their own baggage on the big issues, as does everyone in Northern Ireland. But so far they are united and coherent in their approach.

They will take to their talks hideaway a lot of dark knowledge about the suffering of victims and the bereaved, about what the paramilitaries inflicted, about how a huge swathe of IRA, UVF and UDA members were informers working for the British state and, what will be shocking for many in middle-class unionism, how - based on evidence seen by the group - that same British state allegedly colluded in murder.

Group members, perhaps more particularly its unionist members, are known to have been shocked by what they learned after four days of being allowed to trawl through the papers of the Stevens Inquiry into allegations of British army and RUC collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. "They knew it was going to be bad, but not that bad," said one source.

The Eames-Bradley team had access to confidential Stevens papers that are not in the public domain. Reliable sources say these papers prove a disturbing and sinister level of official collusion.

Nationalists will be familiar with the general level of these allegations, and many will believe the claims to varying degrees. The allegations won't come as any surprise to loyalist paramilitaries either, as they were often the people who worked with the British security forces.

However, group members, it is understood, feel that middle-class unionism will be especially anguished by the extent of the collusion because it was so endemic. Former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's findings of RUC special-branch collusion with the UVF in north Belfast in her controversial report last year won't seem so surprising if Eames-Bradley reveal what they learned from Stevens, sources say.

EQUALLY, THOUGH, REPUBLICANS will have little opportunity for Schadenfreude because the same Stevens papers will point to what sources say is an astonishing level of British infiltration of the IRA. The papers reveal that up to senior levels the organisation was riddled with informers, according to sources. We already know a little about the likes of republican informers Freddie "Stakeknife" Scappaticci and Denis Donaldson, but what Stevens found, which again has not been disclosed, runs far deeper, they say.

This parity of discomfort for both the British and the IRA paradoxically could yield something positive. The consultative group is hoping to meet the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries shortly. There is a certain expectation that the IRA will be prepared to be more forthcoming about its past this time, providing the British side is equally forthright.

A more detailed explanation and acknowledgement by the IRA of how and what it did in the Troubles, perhaps accompanied by a more expansive apology for its actions than already offered to "non-combatants" in its previous limited apology in 2002 could be productive.

The consultative group, it is understood, is examining whether quid pro quo admissions from the British and the IRA about their varying degrees of culpability in the conflict - without necessarily making any point about moral equivalence - could provide a more profound truth about the past that many of the victims and bereaved desperately require.

There are many sceptics who are convinced, based on previous experience of duplicity and dissembling, that neither the IRA nor the British will make such admissions because they will feel it is not in their interests.

It's all rather tentative at the moment, but the Eames-Bradley group nonetheless seems to believe there are possibilities of genuine progress in this area. Neither the British nor the IRA would move without guaranteed commitments of movement from the other. Agreed statements from the British and the IRA probably would have to be banked in advance - put in escrow, so to speak - to ensure neither side attempted to out-manoeuvre the other or welsh on commitments.

For the British to allow some of the Stevens findings to be made public, in such a reciprocal arrangement, probably would require the intervention of British prime minister Gordon Brown. Opening up such a potential Pandora's box, as well as not playing well with middle-class unionism, might disturb middle England. It's a big call for him.

IT'S ALSO A big call for P O'Neill. Opening up to its true past, together with the level of exposure of how seriously it was compromised by informers, would obviously be tricky for the IRA. But such an initiative could unlock the political logjam about devolving policing and justice to the Northern Executive, because the group is also hoping to extract a solemn declaration or "covenant" from the IRA that it will never again use violence for political ends. It would be a further demonstration that the IRA's "war is over".

At a certain level it almost seems fanciful to expect such admissions from the IRA and British state. There are huge doubts in many quarters that the consultative group will succeed. Nonetheless, serious people believe there is the possibility of action now. The Consultative Group on the Past is due to issue its report and recommendations in May, although its work could take longer. The months ahead will tell whether Eames-Bradley can achieve what would be a momentous breakthrough in helping Northern Ireland heal itself. If they carry it off it would be on a par with Chris Patten helping to sort out policing - it would be, as Lord Eames said, achieving the "almost impossible".