Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Will any answers result from taking the course put forward by John Larkin?

Attorney General John Larkin
Attorney General John Larkin

No process on the past is going to fill the jails. There won't be a parade of shame. And if information has to be dragged out of the many sides involved in a decades-long conflict, is it ever going to be the 'truth'?

The debate sparked by the Attorney General's comments on "putting a line set at Good Friday 1998" means an important conversation has begun -- or has been re-opened.

The reactions we are hearing from inside and outside politics are entirely understandable. This is the rawest of issues under discussion.

John Larkin did not use the term amnesty, but that is how his comments are being interpreted.

But there is a big missing piece in this conversation. What is given in return? Would such an approach open files, free information, provide answers and help shovel secrets to the surface?

We don't know, and that is what needs to be explored.

If there is nothing given in return, if we hear the usual responses such as 'I wasn't in the IRA', or that collusion was down to a few bad apples, then this is going nowhere.

A week ago, Queen's University Professor Kieran McEvoy told me: "The reality is in international experience and indeed the historical experience here, that unless you build in some kind of an incentive, some kind of protection for people that they are not going to face prosecution as a result of engaging in some kind of truth process, it's very difficult to see how you are going to incentivise them to come forward."

That's a cold reality. It is why this issue needs discussed. And it is why we shouldn't dismiss the comments from John Larkin

It is an important intervention when the US team chaired by Richard Haass is exploring the possibility of agreements on a new approach to the Troubles.

No-one else has produced the key to unlock the past, and this is not the first time this process has had to confront a hugely difficult and divisive issue.

Just remember the reactions when prisoners were freed early, when processes were put in place to make progress on decommissioning and trying to find the remains of the Disappeared. Think about the responses to the name changes of the RUC and the UDR.

This process has been down these roads before. It is part of our journey out of conflict and towards peace. And now the process faces another challenge.

The debate should not just focus on non-prosecution, but ask whether such an approach provides more of the information that people want. People need the context to help them to decide.

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