Picking over the past in Northern Ireland is a waste of time and money
Files should be sealed until historians can make a measured analysis of the past 50 years
Disputed legacy: British soldiers patrol the Bogside, Derry, in November 1971. Photograph: Darde/AFP/Getty
A now elderly man lost a leg when a bomb exploded under his car in the centre of Belfast in 1972. Every day since then, he experiences excruciating pain. He has sought expert medical assistance and the nuns in a Belfast convent pray for him regularly, but the constant pain persists.
He is one of many victims of the Northern Ireland conflict who have suffered in silence. He has never learned why his car was targeted while he was having a drink with friends. He has never campaigned for any investigation into the life-changing incident or joined any public calls for one.
Consequently, he will probably pass away without ever knowing why or who maimed him. There are many, many similar individuals and families. During the Troubles, an estimated 500,000 crimes were committed and about 3,600 murders took place, the vast majority of them still officially unsolved.
The overwhelming majority of victims and survivors of this prolonged carnage remain entirely ignorant of the reasons for their pain, and few have had any formal justice for their suffering. Their silence has defined them as a significant underclass of victims, nursing their grief and suffering in private. In many cases, in small communities, widows and others see the people responsible for their loss on a daily basis. Sometimes those people are ex-prisoners; in many cases, the culprits are known only by local hearsay. Either way, the hurt is no less intense.
By contrast, there is another group, effectively a hierarchy of victims, which is organised into an increasing number of robust, high-intensity campaigns. These are mounted by relatives’ groups, lawyers and human rights activists seeking public inquiries, tribunals or renewed inquests on behalf of victims who perished in landmark atrocities such as the bombings at La Mon restaurant and McGurk’s Bar or the series of British army killings in Ballymurphy.
The cumulative impact of what is called the legacy issue has bedevilled British-Irish relations ever since the 1998 Belfast Agreement and impeded already challenging efforts to forge positive and constructive relationships between the divided political parties in Northern Ireland.
Neither government is anxious to fuel this process by revealing its own record of events. The British government clings to the dubious proposition that “national security” is at stake. The Irish are equally reluctant to disclose historic papers which could reveal uncomfortable material.
It has been calculated that it will cost £150 million (€174 million) to resolve the outstanding controversies, but given the political complexity and the forensic avarice of the legal profession, that figure is almost certainly a gross underestimate.
As ever in Northern Ireland, there is a notable lack of consensus. For partisan reasons, the various participants want the narrative of the conflict articulated to fit their own interpretations.
The ideal IRA storyline would cast the British security forces as the real villains of the past for conducting unlawful “shoot-to-kill” operations and colluding with loyalist groups to neutralise republicans. They also want loyalists vilified for the sectarian violence committed by groups such as the Shankill Butchers. At the same time, they preserve an unyielding omerta about their own operations.
Unionists and loyalists seek to have the IRA indicted for “ethnic cleansing” against the Protestant population, especially along the Border.
The security forces have their own take on these post-conflict machinations. Former soldiers resent the criminal pursuit, as they see it, of those involved in events such as Bloody Sunday. To counter this pursuit, a cadre of former soldiers wounded in IRA attacks have made formal complaints to the PSNI to have the crimes of which they were the victims equally thoroughly re-investigated.
Former police officers are similarly angry, despite acknowledging that there were some rotten apples in their own ranks. They insist there is no moral equivalence between their work to uphold the law and the violence from which they suffered, with 302 colleagues losing their lives.
Following various critical reports, many have contributed to finance legal proceedings to reverse those reports’ conclusions and protect what they value as the proud reputation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The task of revisiting past events is primarily imposed on the PSNI and the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. A few days ago, George Hamilton, the PSNI chief constable, said that this burden was “draining PSNI resources” and “sapping confidence” in the organisation.
The judiciary, too, has been sucked into the maelstrom. The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, outlined a plan to clear up a backlog of inquests dating back to the earliest days of the conflict. But Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, blocked it because she feared the cases would only undermine the reputation of the security forces. That decision is now under challenge in the Belfast courts.
The net effect of this retrospection is to nourish the longstanding religious and political divisions in the North and compromise reconciliation by preventing the wounds of conflict from ever healing.
The past cannot be reshaped and revised, but the future can be influenced and remoulded in the interests of all, especially if the wounds are allowed to heal. Constantly picking and re-picking them prolongs division and disagreement.
For this reason, all the post-conflict proceedings should be halted and the files sealed until historians can produce a measured analysis of what actually took place over the past 50 years.
The £150 million earmarked for legacy investigations ought to be redirected to help supply the mental and physical needs of all the victims coping with the prolonged burden of their unfortunate involvement in a horrendous episode of Irish history.
The most vociferous of the victims and survivors continually resist any truncation of the investigative process. Their emotional drive is understandable but unrealistic. The accelerating passage of time has removed critical contemporary witnesses, the integrity of ageing forensic evidence constantly devalues, and the unlimited funding to pursue cases is simply unavailable.
Better to use this money to cushion the declining years of the victims and survivors according to their individual needs. They deserve the most generous and professional assistance that society can provide.
Chris Ryder is a journalist and commentator based in Belfast