Eamonn McCann: No getting past the North’s Troubles

Legislation for new investigatory mechanisms to start this month

At Westminster on October 12th, Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers will introduce legislation on dealing with the past. But the chances of it working are very small.

The intention is to give effect to proposals contained in the Stormont House Agreement. Implementation of the agreement has been delayed by disagreements over welfare "reform" and alleged IRA activity.

The Villiers Bill will set up a number of new institutions for investigating unresolved killings and assessing the experience of the Troubles generally.

A Historical Investigations Unit will take over inquiries from existing agencies. The unit will have police powers and will be supervised by the Policing Board. It will refer evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is expected eventually to have a complement of 200 officers. It aims to complete its work on about 1,000 "cold cases" within five years.


An Independent Commission on Information Retrieval will separately gather information on Troubles-related deaths to “enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the deaths of their next of kin”.

While the Historical Investigations Unit will aim for prosecutions, the commission will look for "closure". Information given to the commission will not be passed to the unit and will not be able to be used to bring criminal charges. The identities of the commission's informants will be kept secret. An Implementation and Reconciliation Group will gather information on "patterns and themes" from the Troubles and commission an academic analysis.

Alphabet soup

This alphabet soup of investigatory mechanisms will be cold comfort to the family of Jean McConville, who learned on Tuesday that none of seven leading members of Sinn Féin questioned about their mother’s murder will be prosecuted. One former Belfast IRA man has already been charged. The family could take their mother’s case to the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, which, in the event of the perpetrators confiding their roles, could inform the family that the admission had been made, although not by whom.

Alternatively, the reconciliation group might be able to report at some point that the IRA had included the killing of Mrs McConville in a “statement of acknowledgment”.

Whether any of these eventualities would give “closure” is greatly to be doubted.

Bloody Sunday

Kate Nash

, whose brother was killed and her father wounded on Bloody Sunday, said on Wednesday: “It’s the same for the McConvilles as for us. You look at the way the whole thing is being handled and you know it’s all more about politics than finding the truth.”

Suspicions of something shifty afoot were stiffened a fortnight ago when the Derry Journal reported that a Freedom of Information request for details of the latest draft of the Stormont agreement proposals had been refused by the Department of Justice on a number of grounds including that:

“Although the proposed policies will involve changes which could have a significant effect on the general public, the disclosure of information may have an adverse effect on the policymakers in that they would be less likely to provide full and frank advice or opinions on policy proposals.”

The reaction of some of the bereaved – Ms Nash most volubly – prompted Derry SDLP MP Mark Durkan at Westminster to raise the question of ground being prepared for, in effect, an amnesty allowing the perpetrators of Bloody Sunday, the McConville murder and other atrocities to walk free, cases closed.

On September 23rd, however, within the octave of the department’s refusal to divulge information, the Northern Ireland Office, without prior announcement, published a draft of its Bill online.

This was the day colourful loyalist Jamie Bryson was set to provide a Stormont committee with serious allegations against a number of figures, including Peter Robinson.

There may be no basis for suspicion that the office timed its release to coincide with the loyalist blogger’s predictably sensational allegations. But it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility. The British government is no more likely to tell all about the murderous role of its armed forces and security agencies as republican leaders are to reveal their own involvement in atrocities.

One of the lessons of the last few days is that none of these elements has lost their capacity to call straight-faced and calm of voice for anyone with information on despicable, politically indefensible killing to step forward and tell all.

The reason the past cannot be dealt with is that it isn’t over.