Michael McDowell: Atrocities require us to look forward, not back

Establishing criminal guilt for events of 40 or 50 years ago raises complex questions

Relatives of people killed at Ballymurphy, at Corpus Christi Youth Centre in Belfast:  The shootings in 1971 were unjustified and disproportionate killings of innocent people. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Relatives of people killed at Ballymurphy, at Corpus Christi Youth Centre in Belfast: The shootings in 1971 were unjustified and disproportionate killings of innocent people. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

The British ambassador, Paul Johnston, wrote in The Irish Times on Tuesday that he agreed in one part with last Saturday’s editorial criticising indications from Downing Street of an intention to halt prosecutions in respect of crown forces’ involvement in historic killings during the Troubles as “a distressing and irresponsible move”.

Specifically the ambassador agreed with the editorial’s proposition that the interests of victims in learning the truth about how their loved ones died should be “at the centre of any plan to deal with the legacy of the past”. That sounds reasonable but I wonder is it correct.

It raises two questions. The first is whether criminal prosecutions are the appropriate way to discover those truths. The second is whether we are likely to establish those truths by a different process – by some form of public truth commission process or by a succession of inquests or inquiries.

As regards criminal prosecutions, these are adversarial processes predicated on proving facts against accused persons beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of a law of evidence laced with exclusionary rules of admissibility designed to uphold constitutional principles of fairness, including the presumption of innocence.

I have expressed my unease here at the attempt to prosecute a paratrooper, Soldier H, for his part in Bloody Sunday. The Saville tribunal went a long way to establish the facts of that day in 1972 – and to undo the damage done by the infamous Widgery inquiry. David Cameron acknowledged and apologised for that atrocity. That was important politically. So too was Tuesday’s inquest finding that the Ballymurphy shootings in 1971 were unjustified and disproportionate killings of innocent people.

But if we attempt to establish personal accountability or criminal guilt for events of 40 or 50 years ago, a deeper question arises.

Prospects of reconciliation

Are all such killings to be investigated? Or just some? Is personal accountability to be sought out for every killing? Or is it only killings done, or colluded with, by state actors? Are victim relatives in some killings more entitled to truth and accountability than in others? Do we forget maimings?

It is asserted that reconciliation requires uncovering the truth. But partial uncovering of the truth is problematic. It may destroy prospects of reconciliation – especially if many victims are overlooked.

Are victim relatives in some killings more entitled to truth and accountability than in others? Do we forget maimings?

At some point we must acknowledge that the full truth will not be discovered in many if not most of the killings in the Troubles. Sometimes the difficult path to reconciliation requires that we move forward without establishing criminal culpability or personal accountability for the gravest past crimes.

Nobody will be tried or convicted for the vast majority of the litany of atrocities in the very dirty war that we kindly call the Troubles. There are reasons. The IRA will never reveal its perpetrators or helpers. Nor will the loyalist paramilitaries. British secret intelligence, the police or the army will never tell the whole truth. Informers and spies will never be willingly exposed. No truth and justice commission will go near to establishing the great majority of such truths, I think.

Perhaps historians will in time uncover part of the truth. But doing so will be lengthy, difficult, incomplete and unsatisfactory. And doing so is not a precondition for reconciliation. Acknowledging that it can’t and won’t be fairly done arguably is.

On Friday, November 7th, 1924, at the very close of a week’s Dáil business, the chair invited WT Cosgrave to make a brief statement.

Granting immunity

The background was that Civil War hostilities had ended 18 months previously. The government had already enacted in 1923 an Act of Indemnity granting civil and criminal immunity to all those on the Free State side for actions done in the course of the Civil War. It had previously rejected a call by deputy Patrick Baxter (Farmers Party) that they should do the same for their opponents.

We can collectively acknowledge the Troubles were a vicious, ugly, cruel period where thousands of innocent people were killed, crippled physically and mentally, bereaved and ruined

But Cosgrave briefly stated that the cabinet had resolved that all criminal prosecutions against all persons for crimes committed in the course of the Civil War should end. Criminal immunity conferred by statute on its own side was extended to all involved in the bitter and savage war. Victims and survivors on all sides had now to accept that perpetrators were to escape criminal justice. It was just a start of conciliation.

We can never reconcile all victims with their suffering and grief; we can collectively acknowledge that the Troubles were a vicious, ugly, cruel period where thousands of innocent people were killed, crippled physically and mentally, bereaved and ruined.

In seeking reconciliation, victim-centred politics is of limited value; parading to the graves of perpetrators is utterly destructive. Focusing on what unites people is the only way forward.

Sometimes it takes courage to draw a line and to look forward rather than back.

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