Brian Rowan: Stormont deal represents another failure to deal with the past

After five attempts to create a process, perhaps it is time to accept that this is work for others, independent and international others

On the cover of the latest Stormont deal the words “A fresh start” are typed. They are meant to signal yet another new beginning, another moment when disagreements were turned into agreements.

Not many weeks ago, Northern Ireland’s political institutions were facing collapse, or at least suspension. There had been a long stand-off over welfare reform and budget cuts.

That crisis then escalated with an assessment from the Police Service of Northern Ireland linking members of the IRA to the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast and pointing to parts of an IRA structure that have not yet been dismantled.

This issue became a significant part of the Stormont talks involving the British and Irish governments and the five main parties in Northern Ireland. Out of crisis this new and latest deal has emerged, but the fresh start excludes a significant issue: how to address the questions of an unanswered past.


This is not the first time a negotiation has become stuck at this point. It is a recurring pattern. Almost seven years ago, retired Church of Ireland archbishop Robin Eames and former Policing Board vice-chairman Denis Bradley produced the report of the Consultative Group on the Past. There would be a legacy commission and investigation and information-recovery strands.

Recognition payment

The report fell on a controversial proposal to make a “recognition payment” of £12,000 to every family that had lost a loved one during the conflict period – republican, loyalist, security forces and other. And, during the past seven years, there have been several other attempts to build a legacy structure that would at least begin to answer some more of the questions.

US diplomat Richard Haass and Prof Meghan O'Sullivan were involved in marathon negotiations with the Northern Ireland parties and, since then, this issue of the past has been a key part of other Stormont negotiations.

In terms of a possible structure, the wheels have been invented but they have not yet begun to turn. The plans include a new historical investigations unit, an independent commission for information retrieval and an oral history archive to record the many stories of the conflict period.

Tug of war on policing

In the absence of a process, the experiences of those who lived through the Troubles are shovelled on top of another generation. The questions are passed on and the past refuses to go away. It also means the “new beginning” to policing cannot be fully realised as in this tug of war between past and present today’s police service is constantly pulled back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton wants that past out of today’s policing; wants to open the force’s vault and give the millions of documents it holds to this proposed historical investigations unit. For now, this will not be happening.

The latest talks could not get agreement on draft legislation to establish the historical investigations unit and the commission for information retrieval. The latest sticking point was a battle over national security and what information the British government would allow to be disclosed. Sinn Féin and the SDLP believe the draft legislation was designed more as a type of straitjacket restricting rather than creating a flow of information.

But the past is not just about British national security, about the military and intelligence agencies and what information will be disclosed. This process is no closer to understanding what co-operation it could expect from the IRA and the various loyalist organisations.

Throughout the latest political crisis, Sinn Féin has dismissed the security assessments pointing to the continuing existence of part of the IRA organisational structure; and loyalists have not been part of the latest talks nor of recent key negotiations on the past.

Unionist politicians also want a clear understanding of how the Irish Government will co-operate with any new legacy structures. So, this process remains stuck in the mud, with no certainty as to whether there is a way out.

"Once again it is those who have suffered the most and compromised the most to build a better future in Northern Ireland who are still left wondering if and when they will ever get the opportunity for acknowledgement, truth, justice and some form of reparation for the pain and suffering they have endured," victims commissioner Judith Thompson said.

On these complex legacy issues the latest agreement represents another false start. After five attempts to create a process, perhaps it is time to accept that this is work for others, independent and international others.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author of several books on the peace process