I read with more than a little disappointment the announcement from the British government that they were intending to shortly offer proposals on a blanket amnesty on violence during the Troubles.
I am no longer my government's special envoy for Northern Ireland, so I offer no formal advice or input on the matter. I simply offer encouragement: encouragement not to make the same mistakes my country has made.
When I was special envoy, the Covid crisis forced me to conduct my work almost entirely by phone. I regularly discussed legacy issues with victims’ groups, elected officials, and advocates for military veterans. I remember taking one call from my car while I was driving through the rural American South, where I live. An older man commented as we were wrapping up that “something needed to be done while this is still living history. I’m not going to live forever.”
I do not remember if he was a soldier, ex-IRA, the father of a victim, or a victim himself. And honestly, it didn’t matter. His advice was entirely sound.
Not five minutes after the call ended, I happened to drive by a 100-foot tower adorned with a flag that was easily 20 feet across. It was a Confederate battle flag. They are not uncommon in my part of the country. And it struck me that my own nation had failed to take that gentleman’s sage advice.
My country is still wrestling with having, in many ways, ignored issues of race, slavery, reconstruction, segregation and the like from our past. That is in large part because what were once facts, known and provable to and by living people, have morphed into mythology. And myths have little room for facts.
We struggle to even agree, for example, on the true cause of the American civil war. Most acknowledge the role of slavery, for certain. But others will argue the role of states’ rights, protective tariffs levied by an industrialised north on an agricultural south, an “overbearing federal government”, or all of the above.
Ask different people in different parts of America and you may well get different answers. Indeed, the simple fact that most people even call it the “civil war” is a relatively modern construct. When I was in primary school, it was taught as the “war between the states”; my wife, who lived in a smaller town, learned it as “the war of northern aggression.”
And we continue to pay a price for the lack of a common understanding of our own history. I encourage the Johnson government not to head down that same path.
There is an opportunity to address the violence of the Troubles while the people who lived it are still able to stand up in public and talk about it. Still able to write it down. Still able to have their say, and their day. And that goes for everyone: veterans, loyalist paramilitaries, IRA members, and the victims on all sides. There is a chance to at least agree on what actually happened. But that chance will not continue forever.
People in Northern Ireland recognise that. There are precious few things that unite the primary political parties in Stormont. That they all have uniformly panned the amnesty announcement is a positive sign. Indeed, if British prime minister Boris Johnson is looking for a "fair wind" he would do well to look to the unity in a desire for an understanding of the past.
People in Northern Ireland know that an amnesty will not “draw a line under the Troubles”, as the prime minister has suggested. It will simply lock them in a box. For now. Sooner or later they will find their way out. When they do, they will no longer be real people or real events. They will be the stuff of legend.
People fight over their legends. And facts are weak against them. Especially old facts.
Northern Ireland is hard, in many ways. And dealing with its history is undoubtedly a challenge. This amnesty will make things easier for politicians, for sure. And it arguably may be easier for the citizenry.
But only for today.
It will inevitably make things harder for the generations to come.
Mick Mulvaney was the American special envoy for Northern Ireland from 2020-2021