Seamus Deane, a proud Derry man who sadly died this week, once read a short story to a packed Guildhall in Derry. It told of his witnessing his young playmate in the Bogside being run over by a reversing lorry and the hated RUC policeman gently lifting the dead boy from underneath the lorry’s wheel. The story recounted the mixed and competing emotions that his young heart did not yet understand.
A shortened version of that story appeared in his novel Reading in the Dark, as did the family secret of an IRA uncle who fought in one of the Border campaigns and who was suspected of being an informer.
The Ballymurphy inquest, published this week, forthrightly declared that 10 innocent people had been shot dead in Belfast in 1971 – nine certainly and one probably by the British Army. The publication of the report reminded people just how much has been forgotten, or, more accurately, never remembered.
Not remembered that in those early years of the Troubles there were no police investigations of British army shootings; a branch of the army did cursory reports. Not remembered that the Parachute Regiment was brought in to clear out the, at the time, small and divided groupings of the Provos and the Official IRA. Not remembered that the same Paras came to Derry five months later and made Bloody Sunday happen.
So much forgotten and yet every detail remembered by those most intimately affected. There have been reports, recommendations and partial political agreements as to how to gather up and acknowledge all these hurts and memories. The past and how it should be addressed is a continuum, stretching from those who think a line should be drawn to put it all behind us, to those who believe that every death should be fully investigated under the full rigour of the law.
For the last 30 years the British and Irish governments have stayed close enough to safely steer most of the residual problems of the Troubles onto safe ground. But Boris Johnson’s government is careless and untrustworthy. It has now promised parliament a set of measures to deal with the past once and for all. The fear of many in the North and the exasperation of the Irish Government is that the purpose and the motivation of the British is to pass legislation that will amount to an amnesty for members of the British army.
The ground that is our past, and the efforts to sort it, has been rotavated and trampled on so much that it has become a swamp. It has been churned up so much that there is very little solid ground left on which to construct a solution.
The criticism that the British are motivated by the pressure to protect their soldiers from prosecution is obviously correct. But that same criticism can be made against all the groups who have a stake in this most sensitive issue. There is no group who has the bragging rights when it comes to dealing with the past. The governments, the political parties, the survivor and victim groups have all responded to dealing with this legacy through the prism of their own experience and needs.
The British government’s central proposal , as leaked by the media, is a statute of limitations, which means that deeds committed before the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998 cannot be prosecuted. The fear that it will apply only to soldiers is probably unfounded and certainly unworkable. Former prime Minister Theresa May and former head of the British army Richard Dannatt both said during the week that it would have to apply equally to paramilitaries.
Twelve years ago, an eight-person group, co-chaired by former Church of Ireland primate Robin Eames and myself, suggested a statute of limitations be applied after five years of delivering as much information and recompense as could possibly be achieved after 40 years of death and destruction. The group advised against using the criminal justice system as a mechanism for dealing with the past and explained the growing difficulty of achieving prosecutions because of the time gap, deaths of witnesses and questionable forensics.
Twelve years on and it is crystal clear that for every case that makes it to court there are 50 or more that are disbarred for a variety of legal reasons. The cases that eventually get to court are often unsuccessful and unsatisfactory from the perspective of the victims. In the case of Bloody Sunday only one soldier was charged, and the case is yet to be heard. Ballymurphy was an inquest, and it was the test of civil law and not criminal law that was applied.
A statute of limitations is not a silver bullet. It has to be surrounded by measures that will provide the information that many families and survivors need to give them some modicum of comfort. In the leaks and the commentary that have surrounded the controversy of an amnesty, there is reference but little clarity as to what those proposals will be. It would be wise for the British government to recognise the importance of an international and independent presence in the composition of any body that oversees the gathering and distribution of such information. Any organisation that is seen as representative only of the British establishment will not provide the trust that is necessary.
The patience of the Irish Government is currently at a low ebb with Boris Johnson and his government. Despite that, it has an important role in influencing what the British ultimately decide and how it is implemented. Johnson has been cack-handed in responding to the Ballymurphy inquest and to many aspects of Anglo-Irish relations. But there are many on the backbenches of the House of Commons and the House of Lords who know the complexity, the sensitivity and the importance of this issue. Hopefully, their influence coalesces with that of the Irish Government in helping to create a pathway through this swamp.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board