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Truth Recovery in Northern IrelandCritically Interpreting the Past$

Kirk Simpson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078620

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078620.001.0001

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The conflict in Northern Ireland: A contextual and thematic analysis

The conflict in Northern Ireland: A contextual and thematic analysis

Chapter:
(p.8) 1 The conflict in Northern Ireland: A contextual and thematic analysis
Source:
Truth Recovery in Northern Ireland
Author(s):

Kirk Simpson

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719078620.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a glimpse of the often muscular, politically motivated, and envenomed disagreement that dominates discourse on truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is immediately apparent that this cannot support feasible consensus on the past, which is arguably necessary to the sustaining of devolved government and continued peace, much less offer any form of psychological or emotional analgesic to victims of political violence. Fractured and competing versions of the past in Northern Ireland are also ineffective ways of resolving political and social discordance, and are merely reiterations of the conflict, albeit non-violent ones. Partisan histories must not be allowed to act as expedient substitutes for heuristic methods of dealing with the past.

Keywords:   truth, reconciliation, Northern Ireland, political violence, partisan history

Introduction

Searching for a ‘centre ground’ in Northern Irish politics has never been easy, least of all in terms of truth recovery and dealing with the past. The most problematic question often becomes: ‘Whose centre?’ Yet more often than not, this is a question posed by moral and cultural relativists, or political partisans who use tendentious rhetoric to argue that consensual agreement in which all past wrongdoing is acknowledged and documented is impossible. This, however, is political dissemblance and deceit – a weak disguise for such groups’ desires to possess, adapt and impose their manufactured versions and ‘truth’ of the past.The quest to ‘own’ history is something that can potentially destabilise transitional society in Northern Ireland. This book does not seek to chronicle the Northern Irish conflict. Neither does it attempt to present an exhaustive and detailed history of the ‘patchwork’ of initiatives that have been taken by both governmental and non-governmental actors in relation to truth recovery in Northern Ireland in the last thirty years, and within the last decade in particular, although it is important to note that where appropriate, significant political and legal developments in the dealing with the past debate are referenced appropriately and in a relevant fashion. This is not to suggest that this is – in any way – an analysis that lacks suitable historical context. The stark empirical ‘facts’ that are presented in this chapter should provide even the most unfamiliar of readers with an indication of the scale of the violence and the nadir that social, political and cultural relations reached in Northern Ireland, and there is no suggestion that attempts to uncover or reclaim the truth of those events began only after the conflict had ceased. However, there is already much detailed and expert research that sets out to detail ‘the Troubles’ in all of their violent and political minutiae (and does so extremely well).Thus, presenting some type of ‘authentic’ or ‘authoritative’ version of an objective past – and concomitantly offering intricate and (p.9) extensive detail of the panoply of initiatives that could reasonably be described as representing some form of truth recovery taken at various points throughout the last forty years – is not the intention here. Such an approach would make this book – which attempts to critically interpret the past in Northern Ireland, and which seeks to transcend temporally and spatially bound analyses of episodic violence in search of a theoretical framework that nullifies the mendacity of much of the political argument that has characterised the transitional phase – extremely difficult. Instead, following Croce’s statement that ‘all history is contemporary history’ (and nowhere is this perhaps more the case that Northern Ireland), this chapter deliberately locates the current problems of managing, dealing and mastering the past within the most recent post-conflict ‘endgame’ debates about truth recovery. It is hoped that this will provide a suitable contextual – and more importantly thematic – background for the reader, and for the rest of the book. As noted, further mention of high profile truth recovery projects that have taken place (such as legal inquiries, nongovernmental activities, and retrospective police investigations) will be made in subsequent chapters, where appropriate and relevant (most pertinently in Chapters 4 and 5).

Background

Between 1969 (if not before) and 1998 (and certainly after) Northern Ireland became a political laboratory for a particularly virulent strain of vituperative loathing of the ethnic ‘other’. The spread of noxious faux-ideological creeds (Irish republican/nationalist and British loyalist/unionist), with their voracious appetite for hatred apparently sated only by pointless destruction, became almost epidemic. The legacy of such hatred continues to present a considerable obstacle to post-conflict political progress. For a long time, victims of political violence on both sides – unionist-Protestant and nationalist-Catholic – felt incensed (and continue to feel incensed and insulted) by the very notion that members of the other community could or would also consider themselves victims. This has been particularly the case for unionists, who traditionally felt (and many still feel) that as ‘terrorists’, the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (PIRA) claims (or indeed those of Loyalist paramilitaries) to victimhood were especially galling. More moderate nationalism in the form of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and it supporters have also condemned efforts by people on both ‘sides’ to monopolise victimhood. Whilst there is wider and increasing (if unspoken) recognition of the multi-directional hurt and havoc that was wreaked as a result of the conflict, disagreement, which is often indignant in text and tone, persists about the ‘true nature of the past’, and there is continued refusal amongst sections of both communities to acknowledge the victim status of their political ‘opponents’. This is one of the phenomena that (p.10) this book sets out to examine, and it is in this chapter that this theme and context is adopted and scrutinised closely as a pertinent example of the difficulties of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

There is little value, however, in rehearsing narratives here about particular paradigmatic cases of suffering that would ostensibly illustrate for the reader (especially the reader unfamiliar with Northern Ireland’s past) the ‘nature’ of the conflict. I do not purport to know the ‘nature’ of the conflict, and this book does not seek to trace its genesis or fine detail (this has been done far more capably, and indeed exhaustively, elsewhere). In a fluid political situation like Northern Ireland, things are constantly changing. To reiterate well-worn stories of the past, or to outline structural or individual causes of political violence in the detached tone of the third person, so that this book might be read as an ‘authority’ (or certainly authoritative, in some sense) on Northern Ireland would be naïve and ephemeral (though that is not to say that the provision of some historical and contextual information is not necessary). Such is the critical theory-led approach of the book and the emphasis on the individual, this chapter might well benefit – were it to pursue the historical analysis route exclusively – from an examination of the ‘forgotten victims’. Rather than a collectivised focus on inquires into those killed as a result of high-profile incidents – such as Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday, the Shankill Bomb, the Greysteel Massacre, or the Kingsmills Massacre, awful, obscene and tragic as all of those terrible events undoubtedly were – it is considerably more difficult to investigate the thousands of occasions on which innocent men, women and even children were murdered or injured by paramilitaries or indeed state forces in the name of spurious causes. Yet to pursue that line would also be somewhat insidious, and could be – in my estimation – an unseemly exploitation of the memory of particular individuals who might still be locked deep in the grieving process. As scholars and ethnographers, there is a fine line to walk between exposing untold stories for the betterment of society, and beginning to get drawn into analyses of victim testimony or experience that are in some way regarded as ‘good academic copy’. The very point of this book is to outline, theoretically, a model that will circumnavigate the problem of researchers having to invade (and sometimes feel uncomfortable doing so) the personal space of victims to ‘search’ for hidden stories. This book offers a model for truth recovery that will empower victims of the Northern Ireland conflict to tell the story themselves, and not have to rely on interpretations that are filtered through to the public via academic or governmental interlocutors. Many ethnographers of political violence have wrestled with these issues. In my own research experience, I have found that retrieving previously incommunicable stories of victims was for them, in some way, liberating and positive (Simpson and Donnan, 2006; Donnan and Simpson, 2007). My field notes also reveal, however, that many other respondents have often complained that (p.11) they feel their privacy has been invaded by academics and journalists and that they suffer from ‘research fatigue’. I know, however, that the stories can and should be used, as is standard with academic material (and which differentiates it from journalism), in a rigorous, sensitive and appropriate fashion that can illuminate particular phenomena for a certain scholarly community and the wider citizenry. Even acknowledging this, the material can remain divorced (and in many ways inaccessible) from the experience of those for whom their public telling would be most beneficial. It is unlikely that in most transitional contexts, victims of political violence get widespread access to what are sometimes esoteric journals. This poses an obvious question for readers of this book. One might be inclined to think that it too could fall prey to the same flaws. It is crucial to note, however, that this should not be understood by the reader as a critique of the academic method, or criticism of the value of some of the tremendous work that has been done by scholars in the field (such as Donnan, 2005) – if anything, quite the reverse. It is an early acknowledgement that this book does not seek to walk the same path as so many before.

There are hopefully therefore no lazy or biased analyses of the conflict that are predicated upon temporally or spatially bound events contained in this book. There is a recognition that there is currently a hierarchy of victim-hood in Northern Ireland that needs to be unpacked, and most crucially of all, there is an emphatic announcement in this early stage that critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland necessarily involves reflexive examination, and that includes reflexivity and phenomenological reflection on the part of authors. In actual fact, therefore, the recognition that academic writing can sometimes seem to be too far separated from those whom it seeks to empower can strengthen this work. Allowing and encouraging the reader to appreciate that authors also struggle with ethical questions, especially in the context of political violence and transitional justice, is absolutely fundamental to the ethos of this research. As this book outlines a model for truth recovery on Northern Ireland that has at its core a repudiation of master narratives of the past and which rejects the voyeuristic exploitation of victims’ stories for partisan political or other purposes, it would be absurd, arrogant or both to omit this acknowledgement. I hope this admission helps the reader, from wherever they come politically or geographically, or from whatever section of society they come, to better empathise with the material and to become genuinely engaged in what is the first attempt to devise an original model for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland that is inspired by Habermasian theory and which is based on critical interpretation.

This chapter thus provides a short historical overview of the nature and evolution of the Northern Ireland state and the resultant conflict, for contextual purposes. It does not offer an in-depth portrayal of the main protagonists (p.12) and key moments in the history of the conflict. It concentrates instead on a focussed identification and discussion of ‘current’ thematic and contextual issues when the ‘past’ has impacted upon political developments in the political transition. The chapter seeks to illustrate the trouble with ‘managing’ the past in a divided society like Northern Ireland, but deviates in the main from standard chronological examinations that are often event-led and can be overly descriptive in tone. In the second half of this chapter in particular, a more contemporary analytic approach is attempted, focusing on the current transition from conflict to peace as the most pressing and significant area of investigation, and attempts to link this not only to post-conflict societies beyond Northern Ireland, but also begins to outline the theoretical framework that is crucial to the exposition and explication of the importance of public storytelling and the Habermasian model for truth recovery (and subsequent process of inclusive memorialisation).

A candid examination of core contemporary and illuminative thematic debates about the nature of Northern Irish history is crucial to the explication of critically interpretive modes of analysis. The detailed discussion of contentious and rancorous epistemological ‘methods of knowing’, and the scrutiny of the ideological endurance of age-old cultural and political loyalties that perpetuate deep fracture lines in Northern Ireland and beyond, are outlined here and in subsequent chapters in order to problematise and hopefully offer tentative solutions to the issue of dealing with the past. The reader is asked to pay particular attention to the continued oppositional texture of the discourse regarding truth recovery amongst key political actors in transitional Northern Ireland (and other transitional contexts).This should act as a clear indication of the problems that have endured at the subterranean political level in Northern Ireland, despite the iconographic detente between erstwhile enemies Ian Paisley MP MLA (leader of the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] and First Minster of the Northern Ireland Assembly) and Martin McGuiness MP MLA (chief negotiator of Sinn Fein and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly), and the restoration of devolved government in 2007. If the political and legal transition in Northern Ireland has reached its end phase (and there is still considerable scepticism that this is the case) truth recovery has assumed a central and crucial position.

Northern Ireland – a brief historical context

As already noted, a detailed analysis of the history and the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland is beyond the scope and the intention of this book, and has been extensively documented elsewhere (see Buckland, 1981; Hennessey, 1997; Bew and Gillespie, 1999; Bew et al., 2001). What follows in this next section therefore is not by any means a seminal history of the ‘Troubles’, but rather an attempt to sketch, especially for the reader less (p.13) familiar with the issues, a brief historical outline of the Northern Ireland state and its politics. An understanding of the oppositional cultural and political identities and allegiances of the unionist and nationalist communities provides both an informational and important contextual backdrop. The state of Northern Ireland was conceived in legislative terms 1920 in the Government of Ireland Act, and was born ‘in a crisis’ (Townshend, 1999: 181). The Ulster Unionists, (Protestants [in the main]) wanted to maintain the connection with the British Empire, and their long-held political stance was centred on the repudiation and rebuttal of any form of home rule (self-determination) for any part of Ireland. By 1921, however, they were being asked (or rather compelled by the British government) to manage their own devolved administration, consisting of six counties in the north-east corner of the Province of Ulster, in a new state that would be called ‘Northern Ireland’. Old arguments that home rule was a mechanism by which Irish nationalists (mainly Catholic) had sought to destroy British rule in Ireland resurfaced and were brought under considerable and critical scrutiny by the Ulster Unionists’ uncertain and confused acceptance of the new and complex Northern Ireland state (founded, as it was, on a version of home rule). Such charges though, assumed a spirit of pluralism in the new Northern Ireland state that never materialised – the unionist majority was not particularly inclined to ensure that the Catholic nationalist minority was forcefully represented in government. The British, the supposedly natural ally of unionists (and the government of the reconstituted ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’) to which they pledged their often conditional loyalty, was apparently undecided as to the future of this new state, and seemed to oscillate between explicit support and emphatic neglect.

Any idea the British had that the legislative provisions they had outlined for government in Northern Ireland would ensure fair representation for the Catholic nationalist minority was undone by the gradual abolition of the proportional representation voting system, first for local elections in 1922, and then for Stormont elections in 1929. This was a veritable blueprint for eventual political catastrophe. The sizeable minority of Catholics (over one-third of the population) regarded Northern Ireland as ‘temporary and illegitimate’ (Hughes, 1994: 71). This core question of the political legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state was one that would lead ineluctably to the deconstruction of its stability and durability, and make it increasingly difficult for the British (and later Irish) governments, and the unionist political parties, to reconcile northern nationalists and republicans with the reality of the partition of Ireland into two states, and the principle of consent (that there would no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of its citizens). In the context of such constitutional uncertainty, economic crisis and a divided society, it is perhaps surprising not that the political system completely broke down in 1972 (when the British (p.14) government rescinded devolved power), but that it had lasted so long

(Buckland, 1981).

By the mid 1960s, the then Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Prime Minister Terence O’Neill realised that the government of Northern Ireland had to respond to the demographic and political changes that were taking place in Northern Irish society. Catholics were gradually awakening from a disem-powered slumber and were no longer willing to play the role of a subdued and excluded community (in part motivated by the pace of revolutionary action in other parts of the world at that time). By the 1960s nationalists made it their stated position that the system of government in Northern Ireland needed to be reformed, if not abolished. The package of measures offered by O’Neill in 1968 that was intended to ensure, amongst other things, fair allocation of public housing and reform of the local government system, failed utterly to stop the inevitable slide into political and social turmoil. Nightly riots between groups of republicans and loyalists in troubled parts of Belfast added to the growing sense of social and political despair. The British government pressured the Northern Ireland Unionist government to implement reforms, and tried to combat growing disaffection by offering direction (from afar) through the Cameron Report of 1969 that highlighted the discriminatory structure of Northern Ireland’s public authorities (Townshend, 1999). It became clear, however, that the underlying ideological differences of the unionist and nationalist communities were fuelling an adversarial political crisis that was destroying Northern Ireland. The SDLP, the mainstream representation of Catholics in Northern Ireland after its formation in 1970, outlined its vision of the nationalist goal of Irish unity – but reconciled its supporters to the fact that such an objective could only be achieved on the basis of unionist consent. It also argued that a solution to the problem would necessarily involve an external ‘Irish dimension’ – that is, that the government of the Irish Republic would be given some role in the affairs of the Northern Ireland state. The formation of the PIRA in 1970/71, however, emphasised the perilous and chaotic state of affairs in Northern Ireland (English, 2004). The PIRA’s objective was simple – complete Irish unity and the end of British rule in Ireland, with or without the consent of the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary gangs mobilised in huge numbers in opposition to what they perceived as this brazen assault on their political authority and the diminution of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, and a dastardly cycle of violence was initiated.

O'Neill resigned in 1969 after being unable to secure the confidence of his party (he was denounced and traduced by many as a traitor to the unionist cause), and was replaced by James Chichester-Clark, who was also unable to find a solution to the worsening political and social problems. Due to internal pressure he too was replaced, by a ‘hard-line’ Ulster Unionist, (p.15) Brian Faulkner, in 1971. Like many other unionists in 1971, Faulkner was unable to comprehend or to countenance alternatives to majoritarian government, and his policy for reform (outlined in a Green Paper on reform in 1971) offered no ‘real scope for nationalist participation in government’ (Townshend, 1999: 206). The worsening violence in Northern Ireland, however, and particularly the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, led the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, to call for Faulkner to concede all of Stormont’s security powers (including the much valued Special Powers Act) to Westminster. Faulkner refused, and the British government reacted by suspending the Stormont government. A Secretary of State, William Whitlelaw, replaced it, and assumed responsibility in a new Northern Ireland Office (NIO) for most of the Stormont ministers’ former functions. Direct Rule from Westminster was imposed, and the long search for a solution to the Northern Ireland ‘problem’ began.

The first serious attempt at power sharing, agreed to at a conference in Sunningdale in 1973 by the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party, caused major divisions within the unionist community. Unionism, once a monolithic political movement, had begun to fracture into many pieces. Large numbers of unionists rejected Faulkner’s acceptance of a new political arrangement within Northern Ireland on the basis of a consociational power-sharing government with an Irish dimension. Faulkner was forced to resign after failing to win his party’s support for the Council of Ireland, the ‘all-Ireland’ political element of the Sunningdale Agreement that the SDLP had been able to successfully negotiate on behalf of northern nationalists. In protest, at the British general election of 1974, anti-Sunningdale Unionist candidates won eleven of Northern Ireland’s twelve Westminster parliamentary seats.

The Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike which followed in 1974 was an amalgamation of unionist and loyalist interests, and while it included a sinister paramilitary element, it demonstrated the deep suspicion, mistrust and confusion that existed amongst elements of the unionist community in Northern Ireland. The PIRA had increased its campaign of violence, and the ranks of illegal loyalist gangs were also exponentially swollen. The UWC strike succeeded in its aim of bringing down the power-sharing executive, and the Sunningdale deal, but it offered nothing in terms of a vision for a new Northern Ireland. Unionists and nationalists, not to mention their more extreme counterparts, loyalists and republicans, were poles apart, with little prospect of political agreement or even lasting paramilitary ceasefires. The destruction of the Sunningdale deal provoked exasperation and resentment within an unsympathetic British Labour Party government led by Harold Wilson. Bew, Gibbon and Patterson (1996: 199) have argued that Wilson’s own favoured solution to the problem was complete British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, a policy he ‘abandoned reluctantly only after the Irish government responded with total consternation’. The SDLP responded to the (p.16) fall of the power-sharing executive with considerable disappointment, and was extremely cynical as to the durability of any internal settlement. The capacity of the unionist community to destroy the agreement re-emphasised the perception of the nationalist people that Northern Ireland, as a state, was the property of unionists.

In the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s Northern Ireland was racked by political (and often retaliatory) violence. Economic investment was very low, and imaginative attempts to find an answer to the Northern Ireland question were few and far between. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was an effort by the British government (under British Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) to halt the electoral progress that was being made by Sinn Fein. Thatcher’s British government offered the government of the Republic of Ireland a formal role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. This was calculated to be a concession to the more moderate SDLP, to bolster its political position at the expense of the more radical Sinn Fein. That it did not succeed in achieving this aim was unsurprising – the inclusion of an unelected and low-key Irish civil service division in Belfast was unlikely to be regarded by republicans and nationalists as a major step towards their stated objective of Irish unity. Nor was it likely to find favour with the unionist community, whose political representatives were not consulted on the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The Unionist political parties resisted and resented the Anglo-Irish Agreement vociferously, which they perceived as the unpalatable dilution of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Subsequent public demonstrations of fury by the unionist community, and the unity of the DUP and the UUP in opposing the deal, once again highlighted the delicate balancing act that needed to be expertly executed in order to find an acceptable compromise in Northern Ireland politics.

The next decade, however, witnessed a shift in the political climate that formed the basis of a potential solution to the Northern Ireland problem. A public speech by the British government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke in 1990 in which he asserted that Britain no longer had a selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland helped launch interparty talks that the British hoped would finally find produce a satisfactory political arrangement. After the British general election of 1992, unionists approached the talks confident that their proposals would receive a greater amount of sympathy from a Conservative government with a small majority in the British House of Commons. Whilst the new Conservative administration made deliberate pro-union noises, it had begun a surreptitious process of tentative discussion with Irish republicans, including representatives of the PIRA. The strategy employed by John Hume, then leader of the SDLP, to bring Sinn Fein in from the political wilderness gathered pace, and gradually, credibility. Nationalists were aiming for a broad coalition of (p.17) interest in attempting to achieve a common aim, and that added to the trepidation of unionists.

The process became increasingly entangled from 1992 onwards, and events on the ground at times made it seem as if a solution would never be achieved, as Loyalist paramilitaries (in particular the Ulster Freedom Fighters [UFF]) escalated their campaign of violence to an unprecedented level. The SDLP was not yet in a position to contemplate an internal solution for fear that it would irreparably damage its fragile relationship with Sinn Fein – which at that stage was publicly totally unwilling even to consider an internal settlement as an option, even though its secret talks with the British indicated a much more flexible attitude (Bew et al., 1996). The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 established the framework within which a settlement might be reached (the three-strand approach). Strand one was concerned with the internal government of Northern Ireland, strand two with North-South relationships, and strand three with intergovernmental relations (Tonge, 1998). Sufficient common ground was found to keep unionists and nationalists on board, and crucially, it offered the realistic possibility that the PIRA would call a ceasefire, which it did the following August, 1994. Unionists were offered a formal acknowledgement by both governments of the principle of consent, and the incentive that if agreement were reached, the government of the Irish Republic would propose and support change to those articles of the Irish constitution that unionists found objectionable (i.e. Articles 2 and 3). Britain re-affirmed its position that it had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, and outlined its view that it was for the people of the island of Ireland to decide, by agreement between the two parts, on the basis of consent North and South, to bring about a united Ireland.

The British were (and have remained) anxious to reassure unionists that they would not act as persuaders for a united Ireland, but the DUP argued loudly that the declaration was another step towards the ‘expulsion of unionists from the United Kingdom’ (Tonge, 1998: 143). The SDLP was pleased with the development, and believed that it created a political landscape in which a solution could be found. Sinn Fein rejected the document, but its ambiguity and general tone, allied to the belief within republican circles that the ‘war’ had reached stalemate, provided the necessary context for their ceasefire. The Loyalist paramilitaries followed suit in October of 1994, and a process of talks was initiated that took four years to complete. Although many unionists were deeply sceptical, there was some sense of optimism in both communities that an agreement could be reached that would finally end the conflict in Northern Ireland. There were many obstacles in finally completing the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Decommissioning of the PIRA and Loyalist weapons became a major obstacle. Indeed, this remains perilous, as the UFF commented in 2007 that (p.18) any unreasonable demand to give up their weapons would ‘destabilise’ the peace process. The apparent political inertia of the Conservative government under John Major and deeply held mistrust on both sides also stalled political progress. There was to be further descent into violence (the PIRA ended its ceasefire in 1996 with a bomb in London, and only renewed it in July 1997), before the election of a Labour government determined to find a solution restarted the process of all-party talks.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 ensured the support of the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the British and Irish governments, the UUP, and the political representatives of the Loyalist paramilitaries, as well as the smaller Alliance Party and Women’s Coalition. To summarise, it recommended a devolved power-sharing Assembly and Executive at Stormont, enshrined the principle of consent, ensured change to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, established all-Ireland institutions, and set up a British-Irish Intergovernmental Council. The DUP had not participated in the talks, rejecting them as a sham and an attempt to force unionists into a united Ireland, as had a smaller Unionist Party, the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP). There was rancorous debate among the unionist community in Northern Ireland between those who wanted to accept the Good Friday Agreement and those who did not. There was also spiteful argument over the actual percentage of the unionist community that voted in favour of the agreement during the referendum in 1998 – the UUP claimed anything up to 60 per cent support, whilst the DUP claimed a small majority of just over 50 per cent had rejected it. The nationalist and republican community, conversely, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the deal. The widespread release of paramilitary prisoners caused both unionist and nationalist voters great difficulties, and the issues of the decommissioning of the PIRA’s weapons (now achieved) and the changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)) caused considerable consternation and emotional hurt amongst unionists.

Power was devolved by the British government to the newly formed Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in November 1999. It had been twenty-seven years since Northern Ireland had enjoyed any meaningful form of self-government. The complexion of the new power-sharing Executive and Assembly bore no resemblance to the majoritarian government of the last Unionist administration. Although the Assembly was suspended in February 2000 after the PIRA refused to decommission its weapons, the UUP agreed to re-enter government with Sinn Fein on the basis that the PIRA would ‘begin’ to put its weapons beyond use. Limited power was thus restored to the Assembly in May 2000 Despite a similar crisis in 2001, devolved power and government was sustained until October 2002, when a supposed PIRA ‘spy-ring’ plot was uncovered in Stormont (which has since been proved to have been a complex fabrication). The British government reacted by once (p.19) again suspending the Assembly and returning political power to the NIO. The Assembly remained suspended until it was restored in May 2007, after proportional representation (PR) elections in March 2007 (there had also been Assembly elections in 2003, but the parties were unable to agree a compromise and no institutional manifestation of these results was ever possible). The basis for this rapprochement was the St. Andrew’s Agreement of 2006, negotiated in the main between erstwhile arch-enemies the DUP and Sinn Fein (since 2003, the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, having usurped the UUP and the SDLP respectively as the political ‘leaders’ of their communities). At the time of writing, the current Northern Ireland Assembly is a unicameral devolved legislature with significant cross-border institutions (and therefore input from the government of the Republic of Ireland). It has 108 members (36 DUP; 28 Sinn Fein; 18 UUP; 16 SDLP; 6 Alliance Party; 1 Green Party and 1 Progressive Unionist Party (PUP, the political representatives of the Ulster Volunteer Force, or UVF)). It has appointed a Northern Ireland Executive (the equivalent of a parliamentary cabinet) using the D’Hondt power-sharing principles, which consists of 5 DUP members, 4 Sinn Fein members, 2 Ulster Unionist members and 1 SDLP member. With 30.1 per cent and 26.2 per cent of the popular vote respectively, the DUP and Sinn Fein can now lay claim to speaking ‘for’ their communities, a position unfathomable even ten years ago. The St Andrew’s Agreement (NIO, 2006) was perceived by the DUP to have been a political ‘victory’, a significant and much more rewarding (for the unionist community) rewriting of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, whilst Sinn Fein argued that changes were largely cosmetic and that the 1998 Agreement remained the template for devolved government and the transitional process (the UUP, interestingly, concurred with this viewpoint). It is undeniably the case, however, that Sinn Fein’s position altered drastically in relation to their attitudes to the PSNI and what is termed the ‘rule of law’ within the St Andrew’s document itself. For the first time in the history of the state, Sinn Fein offered full and unbending support, at least rhetorically, to a partitionist police service and to the British criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. In return, Sinn Fein claimed that this acceptance of the PSNI was contingent upon the fulfilment of a commitment they believed they had secured from the British Government for the transference (devolution) of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly by May 2008. Indeed, the Ard Chomhailre (National Executive) of the party was only mandated by the specially convened Ard Fheis (annual convention) of January 2007 to support the police in Northern Ireland on the basis that policing and justice powers would be transferred by that date (although the party left itself some ‘wriggle room’ by using constructive ambiguity, adding that if such a timeframe was not satisfied then Sinn Fein support for policing and justice would only remain in place for as long as what it termed acceptable partnership arrangements were in place to (p.20) implement the Belfast Agreement of 1998). This could potentially lead to a ‘Policing and Justice Minister’ within the Northern Ireland Executive, with the very real possibility that such a post could be occupied by a Sinn Fein representative, and potentially an ex-PIRA paramilitary within that party’s ranks. This was a development considered completely unpalatable to Northern Irish unionists of any hue (DUP or UUP) prior to the St Andrew’s deal; and arguably would have been regarded as a political ‘loss’ for Northern Ireland unionists at any other point in the history of power-sharing negotiations. The DUP has disputed, however, that it conceded the principle of devolved policing and justice powers in the St Andrew’s negotiations, arguing in its 2007 manifesto that it ‘had secured a veto on the devolution of policing and justice’ and that the party could ensure ‘there would be no Sinn Fein Policing and Justice Minister’ (DUP, 2007: 22). It seems, however, that paradoxically it took the almost total electoral elision of the centre ground (the UUP and the SDLP) to make governance in Northern Ireland viable again. Ian Paisley, the long-time leader of the DUP and totemic anti-republican figure (who vowed to ‘smash’ Sinn Fein and ‘never talk to terrorists’) is now First Minister of the restored Northern Ireland Assembly, with Martin McGuinness, a self-confessed former PIRA commander, as his deputy (although in reality the offices hold equal power, and the titles are merely symbolic). It is an unprecedented and widely welcomed state of affairs, but it came at a very heavy price.

The cost of political agreement

During the protracted 1969−98 conflict (‘The Troubles’) in Northern Ireland, as already explained, there emerged a proliferation of both pro and anti-state paramilitaries. Pro-state Loyalist groups, militant British unionists (and almost exclusively Protestant in composition) who were seeking to maintain Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom (for an in-depth consideration of these groups see Dillon, 1989; Bruce, 1994; Taylor, 1999; Crawford, 2003; Lister and Jordan, 2004; McDonald and Cusack, 2004), included the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)/UFF, Red Hand Commando (RHC) and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)). Anti-state Irish republican paramilitaries (almost exclusively Catholic in composition) were seeking to bring down the Northern Ireland state, end partition, end British sovereignty and reunify Ireland (for an in-depth examination of these groups see Bell, 1999; Coogan, 1993; Dillon, 1996; English, 2004; Sluka, 1989), and included the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA), the PIRA (which was the most well-known, sophisticated, effective and feared of all of the paramilitary groups) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

In total, based on figures supplied by the Conflict Archive Service (CAIN, (p.21) 2007) at the University of Ulster, these paramilitary groups (which included many other smaller satellite groupings, and ‘cover-names’ cynically used when paramilitaries were attempting to abdicate or obscure their culpability in assassinations or attacks) were responsible for the deaths of 3,075 people. Irish republican paramilitaries killed 2,055 people. Of these, 980 were Protestants, 446 were Catholics, and 629 were not from Northern Ireland (usually indicating that they were British Army or British security forces). Loyalist paramilitaries killed 1,020 people. Of these, 730 were Catholics, 234 were Protestant and 56 were not from Northern Ireland. (It is important to note that there are some quibbles about the exact numbers of deaths. A number of studies have been conducted and there are some disputes as to what constitutes a conflict-related death).

There is considerable disagreement amongst both communities as to the sectarian nature of the paramilitary campaigns. Whilst republican paramilitaries claimed that Protestants indigenous to Northern Ireland who were members of the security forces were targeted and attacked for being agents of the state (rather than because they were Protestants), many (in particular Protestants within Northern Ireland) reject this rationale and believe that those policemen or army members were killed as part of a sectarian, ethnically and politically motivated assassination campaign (see Crawford, 1987; Dingley, 1998; Parkinson, 1998; Taylor, 1999, 2001; McKay, 2000). In a campaign of asssinassinations and often indiscriminate bomb attacks, Irish republican paramilitaries murdered British forces, including those from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) (a part-time local British Army reserve unit, largely composed of local Protestants), members of the RUC (a police force which was 92 per cent Protestant), former RUC members, British police officers, Northern Ireland prison officers, former prison officers; Protestant civilians; Loyalist paramilitaries; Catholic civilians; Irish police officers; Irish Army; other republican paramilitaries during internal feuds; alleged informers; and contractors who worked on or supplied materials for British security forces. Similarly, the boundaries within Loyalist ideology were not so much blurred as entirely erased, and just as the PIRA thought of Protestant members of the security forces as ‘legitimate targets’ for assassination, so too Loyalists viewed Catholic civilians as ‘culpable’ for sheltering, aiding or supporting PIRA attacks on Protestants. Loyalists attacked and killed Catholic civilians; republican and nationalist politicians; republican paramilitaries; alleged informers; Protestant civilians (in cases of mistaken identity or as a consequence of locally held grudges); and other Loyalist paramilitaries in internal feuds. In a clear majority of cases – almost 80 per cent according to some estimates (see Rolston, 2005) – Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholic civilians, and not republican activists or republican paramilitaries, despite repeated rhetoric that spoke of only targeting and attacking known members of the republican movement. The shocking size of the list of those victimised (p.22) by the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland is a crucial indication of the scale of the conflict and the ways in which it penetrated and destroyed society for thirty years (for an in-depth consideration of all of these issues, and detailed statistical analysis, see the CAIN (2007) archive). It is important to note also that these deaths if scaled up for the size of population hide the true extent of the conflict’s effect (see O'Leary and McGarry 1995, who note that the fact that the conflict took place within a western state with western standard medical facilities also operated to diminish the potential toll of the loss of life, though clearly not the cost of long-term injuries from paramilitary violence).

Searching for truth

In that context, one might have expected that the architects of the Belfast Agreement (NIO, 1998) would have provided more substantial mechanisms for dealing with the past than has actually been the case. Regretfully, despite victims’ long search for truth which stretches back to the very first incidences of political violence of the conflict, in the ensuing years there has been little done in the way of comprehensively addressing the history of the Troubles, and a definite sense amongst victims – both unionists and nationalists – that the British and Irish governments want to ‘draw a line under the past’. The contentious appointment of Mrs Bertha McDougall as Interim Victims’ Commissioner in 2005 was a comparatively recent example of increasingly poor and delayed policymaking in this area. In 2006, the Northern Ireland High Court upheld a judicial review application challenging the appointment. The judge in the case, Lord Justice Girvan, said the decision to make Mrs McDougall Interim Victims’ Commissioner had been ‘motivated by improper purpose’, meaning that it was a calculated political concession to unionists (and in particular the DUP) by the then British Secretary of State Peter Hain MP (as a supposed ‘confidence building measure’). Mrs McDougall’s husband had served in the RUC during the Troubles and been assassinated by republican paramilitaries, and as such her suitability for the role was questioned by nationalists. Nonetheless, Mrs McDougall remained in post in order to complete a report, having been tasked with the following objectives: to review arrangements for service delivery and co-ordination of services for victims and survivors across departments and agencies; to review how well funding arrangements were addressing need in relation to victims and survivors groups and individual victims and survivors; and to consider the practical issues around establishing a Victims’ and Survivors’ Forum (Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, 2007). In a judgement delivered in January 2007 Lord Justice Girvan held that the post of Interim Victims’ Commissioner had formally come to an end on 5 December 2006. The Interim Commissioner’s final report, ‘Support for (p.23) Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’ was completed and made available to the public in January 2007, but crucially the report was issued in Mrs McDougall’s own name and did not receive the support of the NIO. The report seemed pre-occupied with funding and economic reparation (although in relation to its initial mandate, this was perhaps inevitable), and given the background to its dissemination it was always unlikely to make a serious impact on the dealing with the past debate in Northern Ireland. The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order (Great Britain Partliament, 2006), under the title ‘Interpretation: Victim and Survivor’, had already provided a lengthy summary of those whom the British Government considered a victim of the Northern Ireland conflict. The definition included:

  • a) someone who has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident; (b) someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or (c) someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident.

  • (2) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (1), an individual may be psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of -

  • (a) witnessing a conflict-related incident or the consequences of such an incident; or (b) providing medical or other emergency assistance to an individual in connection with a conflict-related incident. (HMSO, 2006)

Acknowledging that whilst this complex definition of a victim might be present in legislation, perhaps the most salient and pertinent point in the entire ‘Support for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’ 160-page report came at the very beginning, in the introduction, in which Mrs McDougall concluded that ‘there is no consensus on the definition of a victim and a survivor in the community’ (2007: 09).Those mechanisms that have been created to deal with the issue of truth recovery in Northern Ireland have therefore been seriously flawed, and are discussed in extensive detail in Chapter 4. For the purposes of this chapter and the maintenance of a contemporary, thematic analysis, however, there follows a discussion of some more of the most pertinent and recent incarnations and iterations of the truth recovery debate.

Marching for truth

It is salient to note that the campaign and search for truth amongst victims of political violence did not begin in 2007 (many victims and victims’ organisations have struggled for acknowledgement for decades, as is detailed in Chapter 4), but it was then that the issue of dealing with the past again began to gain significant public prominence.This was the result of two major initiatives (p.24) at ‘ground level’ – the Irish republican ‘march for truth’ in Belfast city centre orchestrated by Sinn Fein; and the creation of an Independent Consultative Group by the British government to examine the legacy of the past. The appointment of the Independent Consultative Group is a potentially enormous step for Northern Ireland, but throughout this book stringent criticisms of this type of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation (quango) are made (not least in Chapter 2). It is therefore probably more appropriate to note the details of the group for descriptive purposes here without moving into a polemic deconstruction of its work or remit. Such criticisms would at this stage, before the Group has completed its work, be totally unjust, and an unnecessarily destructive ‘trashing’ exercise. It is, after all, to be hoped, that such a group can offer a meaningful route forward for Northern Ireland, and the very objective of this book is to try to find just such a route. Even though it is my firm belief, it would be unutterable pomposity to suggest that the Habermasian model for critically interpreting the past that is outlined in this book is the only progressive and viable method of truth recovery in Northern Ireland. It is not necessarily conceived as having total exclusivity. As such, if there is potential complementarity with other initiatives in Northern Ireland that can serve the needs of victims then that is to be entirely and warmly welcomed by all those who advocate victim-centred processes of dealing with the past.

That said, the Independent Consultative Group is composed of a curious mix of people, and is unquestionably male-dominated. Its members are: Lord Eames (former Church of Ireland primate and co-chair); Denis Bradley (former vice-chairman of the Policing Board and co-chair); Jarlath Burns (former Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) captain of Armagh county); Presbyterian Minster Reverend Lesley Carroll; Willie John McBride (former captain of the British and Irish Lions rugby union team); James Mackey (a former philosophy lecturer); Elaine Moore (a drugs and alcohol counsellor); and David Porter (director of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland). Ex-President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (who was part of the decommissioning team appointed by the British government to inspect the destruction of PIRA weapons in Northern Ireland) and South African lawyer Brian Curran (who has experience in Northern Ireland as a former chairman of the Parades Commission) will serve as international advisors to the Group. There is a fear that this Group will continue to essentialise victims and conduct its enquiries according to a collective memory paradigm. This suspicion was not allayed by Lord Eames, who has argued publicly that collective memory can ‘dictate the future’. Throughout this book, analysis is provided which questions the value of this collective memory model, based both on theoretical criticism and empirical evidence of the experiences of victims in other post-conflict societies in which memory has been collectivised and distilled into digestible, palatable chunks in order to satisfy wider (p.25) political aims and pacify restless, unaffected majorities. Furthermore, Denis Bradley’s almost insouciant, very ambiguous and somewhat conditional statement that ‘sometimes, it’s decent to ask [victims] what do you think?’ was hardly a ringing and unequivocal endorsement of any form of victim-centred process of critically interpretive truth recovery in Northern Ireland. (〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/6229190.stm〉 last accessed November 2008).

Although the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Irish Republic, Bertie Ahern TD, welcomed the news, northern republicans were less than happy. Sinn Fein complained that as a British government-appointed agency, it would be the British who would make the final decision on any recommendations made. A nationalist victims’ group – Relatives for Justice (RFJ) – also expressed concern, objecting and claiming that in particular that the two chairs of the Group – Eames and Bradley – had already publicly articulated their view that the best policy for truth recovery in Northern Ireland was to ‘draw a line under the past and move on’; and that the Group did not have an all-island remit. RFJ also argued that ‘ultimately it will once again be the victims who lose out in this cynical exercise’ (www.relativesforjustice.com/?pid=461, 2007, last accessed Novermber 2008). Perhaps surprisingly, these objections were echoed by one of the most strident of unionist victims’ groups, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR), who commented publicly on its website that it was with ‘utter and total disgust that the victims see another quango set up to look into how to deal with Victims’ past’. FAIR went on to say that it wanted to send a ‘clear message to these quangos and government not to even consider trying to enforce a political arrangement that suits them onto the victims’ (www.victims.org.uk/news.html, 2007, last accessed November 2008).

The notion of ‘marching’ for truth however – with its military overtones and the long, complex and contentious history of marching in Northern Ireland – is potentially more problematic, and is vaguely ridiculous in a society that purports to desire to unlock the grating shackles of a violent past in a conciliatory fashion. In 2006, a unionist victims’ group under the auspices of the slogan ‘Love Ulster’ (with very close links to FAIR) set the precedent for this sort of exercise, bus-loading hundreds of protesters to Dublin, the capital of the Irish Republic, to make their case and present ‘their history’ to the citizens of that country via a public demonstration through one of the city’s most popular and busy main streets. Technically this should not have caused untold or unmanageable problems, either logistically or ideologically. It should be noted that relationships between the rally organisers and the Irish government were cordial, and the march was accorded full legal status. The Irish police service in Dublin (An Garda Siochana) was also extremely compliant, sealing off the parade route and doing their best to safeguard the demonstrators from any possible attack.

(p.26) The objective of the rally seemed to be to make the polemical point, as Northern Irish unionists have often claimed (with some evidence), that elements of the Irish state (government officials and the Irish police) colluded with the PIRA in the targeting and assassination of high-ranking RUC officials, as well as financing the importing of other weapons which contributed to the PIRA’s capacity to wage ‘war’ in Northern Ireland. It is also the case, however, that that the Northern Ireland conflict often crossed the border into the Irish Republic and Dublin in particular (where a UVF bomb killed many innocent civilians in 1974). Despite this, the northern unionist protesters had no concrete reason to believe or fear that the Irish citizenry at large was totally unsympathetic to their experiences, or that Irish citizens had tacitly or explicitly supported the PIRA throughout the Troubles. The protest, however, resulted in a disastrous and deeply unsettling riotous conflagration as extreme Irish republican elements, the majority of whom were suspected also to have been drawn mainly from Northern Ireland, petrol bombed and attacked the protesters and the Irish police, who were marshalling the event. More serious catastrophe was narrowly averted by the skill and courage of the Irish police, a fact acknowledged with gratitude by the unionist demonstrators. As a politically motivated event, it possibly served some sort of short-term purpose, at least in terms of attracting publicity. One must wonder, however, how effectively it catered in any real sense for victims of the Northern Ireland conflict, especially those that were non-unionists and non-Protestant. It might have been considered appropriate for example, that as part of such a peaceful demonstration (which unfortunately ended in violence) the northern unionist group might have made plans to commemorate those who were killed in the Dublin bombing, to show that their strategy for remembrance was genuinely inclusive. Re-objectifying victims by marching on their behalf, and then being attacked by counter-demonstrators, must have been deeply emotionally and psychologically distressing for any northern unionists victims who were either directly involved, or for those many more watching from afar (it was covered extensively on UK and Irish national television because of the riot) and who disagreed with both the objectives and the methodology of the demonstration. My own research with many unionist victims not affiliated with the Dublin protest has suggested that as a result of the ‘march’ they felt that they had been essentialised by the media coverage as being ‘the same’ as the demonstrators, and that this in no way helped them or encapsulated how they felt.

In the summer of 2007, it was the turn of Irish republicans in Belfast to stage a partisan act of public remembrance via an event that they entitled ‘The March for Truth’. Truth and justice are phrases often used interchangeably by such groups without due consideration of the core semantic, taxonomic and conceptual issues at stake. This represented imitative and divisive politics at its worst, and despairingly it was the same kind of mimetic logic that spawned (p.27) decades of violence in Northern Ireland. The translation of and between privacies and separate experiences cannot be accomplished in Northern Ireland through separatist, dichotomised marches that preach (sometimes, it must be said, both glibly and instrumentally) the words of ‘truth’ to the converted, and which construct them in ways that are entirely inimical and oppositional to the ‘other’ community. The unconscious linkage of perambulation and demonstration – more obviously articulated as the connection between motion and identity – cannot be unfastened psychologically or ritualistically from the desire amongst ideological particularists for express political gain, for that would be naive. However, one would have imagined that any romanticised notion of walking for tangible political gain – give its long and troubled history in Northern Ireland from Londonderry to Drumcree, Portadown – would have been wiped away by the evidence of the violence such marches have induced (Bryan, 2000). There is a lack of any sophisticated discourse around this issue too. It seems that ‘marching’ for truth is some sort of default social and political mechanism by which political partisans in Northern Ireland think they can orchestrate ‘victory’ (that is, the imposition of ‘their’ history). More importantly, it is possible to contend that the vast majority of citizens in Northern Ireland remain unmoved by these events – they are more likely envisaged by the wider public as unwelcome and tiresome encumbrances and obstacles to shopping or other, new post-conflict recreational activities than venerated as part of any great political struggle.

The ‘march for truth’ in 2007 prompted vehement and impassioned disagreement amongst republicans and unionists that was largely discordant with the new tone of the ostensibly harmonious political discourse in Northern Ireland that had been apparent since the devolved Stormont administration was re-activated, demonstrating once again that this remains a potentially deal-breaking issue if not handled sensitively and appropriately. Irish republicans articulated a very familiar narrative of the past that was and is fashionable amongst it supporters, and it was warmly received by a relatively small crowd (whilst the organisers claimed 7,000 people turned out, the PSNI estimated it to have been 1,500). This republican narrative concentrates exclusively on the need to expose the truth of the British state’s role in sponsoring pro-state terrorism (Loyalist paramilitaries) in their campaign of assassinating republican terrorists, political activists and innocent Catholic civilians. There is no doubt that such state collusion occurred (though the scale is increasingly hard to quantify) and that many Catholic-nationalist families are still nursing weeping sores of grief and injustice. Such wounds, however, cannot be adequately cleansed and sutured by divisive rhetoric such as that articulated by Sinn Fein and republicans at the ‘march for truth’. Their version of the past is a carefully stylised history and is understandably seductive for republican victims of the conflict, but by (p.28) its very definition it appeals only to one side of the community and therefore cannot achieve long-lasting reconciliation. It immediately elides, for example, even if one were to focus exclusively on crimes perpetrated by the British state and its supposed Loyalist proxies, the equally devastating experiences of unionist-Protestant families who were also the victims of Loyalist paramilitaries but who feel that they cannot subscribe to Irish republican historical revisionism. This is, again imitatively, the way that some unionist victims’ groups – though they make claims to the contrary – have either deliberately or inadvertently excluded the many hundreds of Catholic-nationalist victims of PIRA crimes by protesting most loudly about Protestant and unionists who suffered at the hands of republican paramilitaries. In both cases, ‘made to measure’ reproductions of ‘soft-focus histories’ are offered that ignore the individual and structural agency of perpetrators and the wrongs inflicted by all parties to the conflict.

The stream of unionist invective that the ‘march for truth’ provoked immediately showed that the event had been a political failure, at least in the wider sense of promoting conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. Unionists articulated their view, using the popular press and other media outlets, that the march was totally unacceptable to them. Prominent DUP MP Gregory Campbell was quoted in the Belfast Newsletter, a daily regional morning newspaper with a predominantly unionist readership, that the President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams MP, appeared to be using ‘standard republican techniques’ in an attempt to dupe an international audience into believing that there was ‘no real difference between the perpetrators of violence and others’. Campbell continued by stating that Adams and Sinn Fein were ‘hoping to equate perpetrator with victim but it will not work and will not be allowed to work’ (Belfast Newsletter, 8 August 2007). The furious tone of Campbell’s discourse was reflective of the DUP’s position, but they were not alone in condemning the march. Even though Adams had announced at the event that it was ‘in the interest of all our people that there is a genuine and successful healing process … that means thinking beyond any sectarian, sectional, party political or self interest’ (www.sinnfein.ie/gaelic/news/detail/20221, last accessed November 2008), the nationalist SDLP were also dismayed by the march. SDLP Northern Ireland Assembly member Declan O’Loan commented negatively on the ‘march for truth’, and was quoted on the Ulster Television (UTV) website as saying that ‘deep wounds are present and they are made worse by inappropriate forms of commemoration. what is wrong about this call is the one-sided nature of it’. O’Loan also argued that the ‘Republican Movement’ was conveniently ignoring its own responsibility in the ‘destruction’ of the past, citing figures that indicated that the PIRA was responsible for 48.5 per cent of all the deaths in the Troubles – ‘by far the largest proportion for any group’. (www.utvlive.com/newsroom/indepth.asp?id=84075&pt=n, last accessed (p.29) November 2007). Unsurprisingly, Sinn Fein reacted angrily to this unexpected deconstruction of their attempt to finesse history according to their carefully crafted template, with Sinn Fein Assembly member Paul Maskey lashing out at the SDLP and O’Loan’s remarks in particular as ‘deeply offensive to the hundreds of victims and victims’ families’ who had participated in the march’ (www.utvlive.com/newsroom/indepth.asp?id=84075&pt=n). In the aftermath of the event, there was much bilious comment from all political sides which appeared both in print and other media outlets. It was an indication, if one were needed, that dealing with the past in Northern Ireland – even though political and social balance has supposedly been achieved – remains an enormously divisive issue, both between and within unionist and nationalist communities.

Each community is extremely sensitive to the perceived hierarchy of victimhood. In the case of the DUP and it supporters, there is a clear desire to maintain that hierarchy; and in Sinn Fein’s case there is a clear desire to have it abolished. The notion that either party can, on its own, uncover and concretise the past on its own is preposterous, and utterly antithetical to the foundations and fundamentals of political co-operation that made the reconstruction of power sharing and devolved government in Northern Ireland possible. In regards to truth recovery, the explicit, pugnacious and disputatious commentary offered by both Sinn Fein and the DUP (and to a lesser extent the SDLP and the UUP) has re-emphasised the contentious nature of the past, and the impossibility of imposing some form of mechanism for addressing past wrongs (like the Independent Group, as well intentioned as it might be) that is focused on purging the undoubted toxicity of the past, but which does not allow all victims to speak publicly, individually, and for themselves. The apparent need for expeditious political ‘hygiene’ is consonant with an expedient attempt to solidify devolved government, but as some kind of historical antiseptic it is misjudged and misplaced. News releases on the DUP’s website likened the Sinn Fein organised ‘march for truth’ to a ‘fascist rally’ (www.dup.org.uk/MoreArticles.asp, last accessed November 2007) and expressed the view that unionist resolve and opposition had been immeasurably stiffened as a result. Trevor Clarke, another DUP Assembly member, argued that ‘unionists will continue to fight to ensure that history reflects the ‘real truth’ about what happened in Northern Ireland’. Whilst some consensual, communicative and rationally established ‘real truth’ might be an acceptable and idealised goal for any post-conflict society (this is discussed in considerable depth in Chapter 4), Clarke’s notion of ‘real truth’ was yet another iteration of dichotomised partisan politics – ‘the real truth is that the IRA embarked upon a bloody, butcherous campaign of murderous terrorism to drive unionists into a united Ireland’ (www.dup.org.uk/MoreArticles.asp).

This is just a short sample of the sort of septic disagreement about the past that still infests and pervades Northern Irish politics. More extreme and (p.30) vociferous condemnation can be found on the websites of victims’ groups on either side of the political divide, and whilst this might be dismissed as peripheral and non-influential, the texture of the statements by mainstream political actors gives definite lead to their voters, however unconscious, and is sometimes undoubtedly inflammatory. Supporters of either the DUP or Sinn Fein – the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland – are encouraged to ingest the virulent and entrenched positions that are articulated by their elected representatives. It is understandable that people (especially victims) are deeply upset and hurt by events of the past, but political parties should demonstrate more responsibility and creativity in trying to find a middle way in which the truth of the past can be both discovered and be widely accepted by the public – unionist, nationalist and republican. To pursue a path in which one history must triumph over another is both illusory and socially calamitous for both theoretical and practical reasons that will be discussed and examined in more detail in this book.

Conclusion

In concluding this chapter, it is thus important to note that the inappropriate administration of social or political anaesthesia by governments or dominant and opposed groups merely dulls the senses of the unaffected wider public and continues the marginalisation of victims. Fractured and competing versions of the past in Northern Ireland are also ineffective ways of resolving political and social discordance, and are merely reiterations of the conflict, albeit non-violent ones (though it would be foolish to discount the capacity that such polemical public events have for provoking serious civil disturbance, as was evidenced in the Dublin march described in this chapter). Partisan histories must not be allowed to act as expedient substitutes for heuristic methods of dealing with the past. This book outlines and examines an alternative and in-depth framework of truth recovery in which the concepts of storytelling and dialogue-based, communicatively rational engagement are given priority. This chapter has provided a glimpse of the often muscular, politically motivated and envenomed disagreement that dominates discourse on truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and it is immediately apparent that this cannot support feasible consensus on the past, which is arguably necessary to the sustaining of devolved government and continued peace, much less offer any form of psychological or emotional analgesic to victims of political violence. Northern Ireland will become increasingly politically stretched if an amnesiac approach to the past is advocated because the tragedies of the past cannot be incubated or hidden away indefinitely; and they will potentially collapse entirely if parallel but mutually exclusive histories are allowed to compete, without meaningful dialogical engagement, for some form of eventual political supremacy.