Northern Ireland’s violent past remains unresolved
Stormont negotiations mean questions over legacy issues have yet to be answered
View of the aftermath of the Shankill Road bombing in Belfast on October 23rd, 1993. File photograph: Pacemaker Belfast
When Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan stood beside Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers in Belfast on November 17th last year, they knew the ever-faltering Stormont institutions had been saved after yet another long negotiation.
This was their good news, which was the emphasis of their joint press conference delivered in a room packed with journalists reporting on the third consecutive end-of-year negotiation spanning the late months of 2013, 2014 and now 2015.
For the political correspondents and the various news teams present, the good news was that these particular talks were not going to extend into the Christmas and the new year period.
Flanagan and Villiers wanted to keep the focus on the positive, what was termed a Fresh Start; “another milestone agreement” was the heading on Flanagan’s news release.
However, there was a spoiler in what was supposed to be a day of political celebration.
Once again, there was no agreement on how to address the questions of Northern Ireland’s violent past.
Yet another protracted negotiation involving the British and Irish governments and the main political parties in the North had ended with no deal on what is termed a legacy process.
That process, when – or indeed if – it is finally shaped and structured, will ask many questions in many places.
“How they [the IRA] carried out their training and preparation for attacks in Northern Ireland from the Republic.”
And, on historical extradition cases, Elliott asks: “Did the Irish authorities take a relaxed or soft approach in relation to dealing with terrorists?”
This is but one set of questions. There are many others that eventually will become part of detailed analysis and reporting of conflict-period patterns and themes.
These will peer into the hidden corners of security and intelligence as well as asking for answers from the IRA and loyalist organisations.
Even if such a structure, including a Historical Investigations Unit , an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval and Implementation and Reconciliation Group, is agreed, it has to be asked what will such a process deliver in terms of truth.
And will the IRA be part of it , the IRA which Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and other party leaders insist has “left the stage”?
The policing and intelligence assessments on both sides of the Border challenge those statements from Adams and other republicans and point instead to the continuing existence of parts of the IRA structure, including the army council.
Senior republicans are not going to confirm those assessments. Indeed, in recent months, one likened the IRA to a caterpillar that had become a butterfly and flown away.
Such glib comments raise questions about the seriousness of republicans when it comes to answering the past.
“There is a school of thought out there that republicans don’t want a legacy process,” one of the IRA’s most senior leaders in the conflict period tells The Irish Times.
The reality, he says, is that they “need a legacy process more than anybody else”.
In the absence of such a process, he says, politics is constantly poisoned. “If you don’t deal with legacy, you aren’t going to have reconciliation.”
Does he accept the argument that the IRA was responsible for the highest number of deaths and therefore has the most questions to answer?
“That’s a bogus argument,” he says. “How many innocent Catholics were killed by collusion? The whole murky world around ‘Stakeknife’: agents killing agents. We need a context.”
If it has left the stage, how then will the IRA engage when a legacy process is finally established?
“There’s an institutional memory there,” the senior republican leader says.
“The accusation is we are out for maximum disclosure from the British and that we are going to hide. So put it to the test. I think we have to be open and honest with the families [demanding answers]. We shouldn’t raise expectations.”
The source, who police and intelligence agencies in the North potentially still assess as holding an IRA leadership position, spoke on the condition of anonymity. To do otherwise would be to invite arrest.
“What we should seek is the highest level of information recovery,” he tells The Irish Times.
“You are not going to get the full truth from the British side – not going to get it from any side.
“You are going to get a corporate narrative [from republicans]. You are not going to get anyone going in to say, ‘This is what I did’. Let’s be honest about what is achievable.”
This mean the specifics will be missing from the answers, that the responses will be edited and anonymous, organisationally framed and not written around identifiable individuals.
There will, for example, be no naming of those who gave the targeting and attack instructions and orders for the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 or the Shankill Road bombing of 1993, both of which resulted in multiple civilian deaths and injuries.
What is becoming clear is that the answers that will come from the many different sides will not equal or measure up to the truth people are seeking.
It sounds like the scenario described by author David Park in his 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner: that instead of truth, families get some “formulaic, pre-learned response that expresses a vague regret for the pain caused”.
Park writes about “the void opening up inside the bereaved when they understand that this is all they are to be given and they realise it’s not enough”.
Eight years ago, did Park have the vision to predict a likely course of events?
How, after conflict or war, truth gets lost in the peace with these mechanical, unemotional and pre-learned lines offered as some substitute?
Could this be how a real-life truth process or information-retrieval process develops outside the pages of his novel, mirroring the fictional commission he created?
Unlocking the answers to the past will require much more than political agreement on that previously described legacy architecture.
“We are determined to achieve the establishment of these institutions so that we can in a fundamental way deal with the past, foster reconciliation and build a society for future generations that is free from hurt and suspicion,” Flanagan said in November.
But could these institutions – the Historical Investigations Unit, Independent Commission for Information Retrieval and Implementation and Reconciliation Group – become the places where “corporate narratives” begin to sound like the “formulaic, pre-learned” responses Park wrote about?
His novel was published at a time when a Consultative Group on the Past was exploring possible ways forward. Eight years later, and after many negotiations, that path has not yet been found, and there is now real concern about how many more times this issue of the past can be taken back into political talks.
Another failure to reach agreement would be viewed as “a disaster”. But an agreement among political parties and governments to establish the legacy institutions will not guarantee truth.
And nor can the stalemate over the past be reduced to any one issue such as the ongoing battle in respect of British national security concerns and what that will mean in terms of withholding information.
There is still no clear indication or understanding of how the IRA, the various loyalist organisations and others across security and intelligence will engage in a past process.
“The more we dig at the truth, the more we bury it,” loyalist Wiliam “Plum” Smith says.
A former prisoner, Smith is the author of Inside Man, which tells the loyalist story of Long Kesh, and he chaired the news conference at which the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire was announced in 1994.
He was then part of the loyalist delegation inside the talks which culminated in the Belfast Agreement.
He has watched up close as the peace process has developed, and his work with an ex-prisoner project brings him into regular contact with republicans.
“In terms of what people expect [by way of answers] and what people can deliver, those two things are as far apart as ever,” Smith said.
“There is no chance of getting to the full truth of all the mechanics and players and the reasons for the Shankill bomb. Other actions across the conflict period by all parties will result in the minimum of revelation.
“I disagree with building up the hopes of people regarding any truth-recovery process. I think it’s wrong and misleading,” he says.
In Smith’s words, we hear an honest and frank assessment about the limitations of a truth-recovery or information-retrieval process.
Two republicans, who both held senior IRA positions at the time of the Shankill bomb in 1993, offer two very different accounts of that day.
One speaks bluntly about an “operational imperative to take out Adair and Co”.
They were central to a surge in loyalist attacks, including a very specific targeting of republicans in their homes and offices.
Indeed, just weeks before the Shankill bomb, Adair had boasted of his organisation – the UDA-linked Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) – hitting Sinn Féin at the “top, middle and bottom of the ladder”.
The IRA then made clear its intentions, in an interview published in An Phoblacht on October 14th, 1993, just nine days before the Shankill attack: “As we have demonstrated, most recently in the loyalist Shankill heartland when the local UFF military commander escaped forfeiting his life by nothing other than sheer luck, there is no hiding place for those involved with the loyalist death squads
“We are determined to exact a price from them. No one should be under any illusions. Those involved with the loyalist death squads will be held accountable for their actions.”
This was the wider context at the time of the Shankill bombing, the reason for that order and “operational imperative” that “Adair and Co” must be taken out.
The attack on a Saturday afternoon ended with nine civilians being killed along with the bomber, Thomas Begley.
Another member of the IRA, Seán Kelly, was found with the injured in the rubble.
The attackers had carried a bomb into a fishmongers, a Semtex device designed to target an office above used by the UDA as a headquarters on the Shankill Road.
The office, which was in the same block of buildings but not part of the fishmonger’s, was empty at the time.
One republican accepted the nature of the attack meant there would be “collateral damage”, meaning civilian deaths and injuries.
However, another republican said the plan was that there was to be sufficient time for Begley and Kelly to escape and warn civilians in the immediate area of the bomb.
“If [you accept that] the volunteers weren’t suicide bombers,” then there should have been time for civilians to get away also. But no one on the Shankill Road will accept that argument as truth.
“They argue that the IRA, in pursuit of Adair, knew there would be civilian deaths; that working on the belief he would be in the office, the IRA was not going to allow their target time to escape.
Therefore, there was never going to be enough time for civilians in the shop and outside on the street to get clear, especially not with a bomb on a short fuse.
More than 20 years later, loyalists watching the debate on the past are certain about one thing: IRA involvement is vital to any legacy process.
“It is totally inconceivable that a legacy process could work without the participation of the Provisional IRA, just as it could not work without the participation of loyalists or other major actors such as police and security services and the British and Irish governments,” says Winston Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party.
“Given the willing participation of all major actors, what may a legacy architecture look like? To ask this question at this time is irrelevant as there is as yet no general consensus about what a legacy process can realistically achieve.
“Can we expect, for example, paramilitary organisations to accept corporate responsibility and provide information on motives or is there an expectation of specific operational information for each and every incident?
“Similarly, what can be expected from the British and Irish governments in this context? We cannot ask victims whatever their background – civilian, military, loyalist or republican – to give up the right to justice, but we must be honest about expectations and what can be achieved.”
But what can be done for those hurt the most in the conflict period and who, in the words of Belfast artist Colin Davidson, are now “in a way paying for everyone else’s peace”?
Davidson believes that hopes for justice and for answers are disappearing. This week he endorsed comments by actor Jimmy Nesbitt that victims were let down by the most recent failure to get an agreement on a legacy process.
Davidson’s Silent Testimony exhibition, which ends in Belfast tomorrow, shows that what is often referred to as the past is for many still their present.
His 18 portraits are an illustration of how the conflict period continues to have an impact on the lives of the injured, their families, the families of the dead and the wider community.
More than 56,000 people visited the Ulster Museum in Belfast to see his paintings, which will now be taken to Paris to be shown in the Irish Cultural Centre.
In the absence of political agreement and in the stalling over a legacy process, the artist has used his craft and shown another way to remember, to remind and to reflect.
Brian Rowan is the author of the recently published Unfinished Peace