Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Colonel Tim Collins' proposal to draw a line under the past will remain so much simplistic nonsense

Colonel Tim Collins' proposal to draw a line under the past will remain so much simplistic nonsense until we can agree on the causes of the conflict, writes Alex Kane

Action: Colonel Tim Collins says the time has come to move on. But is that possible in a place where the two main parties, led by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, despise each other?
Action: Colonel Tim Collins says the time has come to move on. But is that possible in a place where the two main parties, led by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, despise each other?

And then, children, the fairy waved her wand, drew a line in the sand and everyone in Northern Ireland lived happily ever after. That, or so it seems to me, sums up the view of those who believe that "drawing a line under the past" will allow all sides to move forward towards a new era of harmony and co-operation.

It wouldn't. All it would do is send out a message – to anyone wondering if the long arm of the law will ever touch them – that they can stop worrying and get on with their lives. It also sends out a message to all victims and their families that they can kiss goodbye to either truth, or justice.

There's the reality of Northern Ireland: republicans and unionists remain divided on the constitutional future, to the extent that they can't even agree what to call the place. There is no joint agenda, or consensus, at the heart of government. There is no agreement on socio/political/ educational integration; and power-sharing is an illusion.

Every attempt to create a framework for a shared future has ended in failure. The DUP and Sinn Fein despise each other. Our political divisions are wider now than they were in 1998 and those voters who could be bothered to vote are voting for polarisation.

Until you deal with that reality, then it will never be possible to draw a line under the past. I'm not saying that drawing a line (which, in Northern Ireland terms, is taken to mean bringing to an end investigations and prosecutions related to all Troubles-linked deaths and injuries) is necessarily wrong: but I am saying that the line cannot be drawn if there is no prior agreement among the people and parties about the future of the country.

In other words, you can only draw that line when there is very clear proof that the Assembly and Executive have a shared vision, shared agenda and shared approach to governing Northern Ireland once the line has been drawn and crossed over.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I would argue that it's impossible for republicans to draw a line under the past.

The past to them begins with the "continuing occupation of this part of Ireland" and the past will never be successfully dealt with until that moment when there is an independent, sovereign, united Ireland.

So, even if they agreed to draw the line under investigations and prosecutions, they are not going to draw a line under the promotion of Irish unity and doing everything they can to achieve that end. They will still view politics here as an "us-and-them" thing. And so, too, will unionists, who will continue to play to their own gallery and prioritise their own agenda.

So, drawing the line in the way that John Larkin (right), Colonel Tim Collins and NI21 seem to favour, is not going to be the answer if the question is, 'How do you make political progress in Northern Ireland?'

Actually, drawing that line is the easy option response: the 'let's not bother too much about the past and focus on the future, instead' response. But, if you don't understand the past and come to terms with why people did what they did, you will not be able to build a consensual future: the decisions of our past are the architects of our present.

The ongoing problem here is that we don't agree on the past. We don't agree on the causes and consequences of the 'conflict'; we don't agree on the basis for any truth and reconciliation process; we don't agree on where Northern Ireland should be in 20, or 50, years' time.

If you draw a line against that sort of background, you will simply make it very much easier for some people to rewrite the past. If you can't, or won't, deal with the crimes of the past, I don't see how you will agree on the causes, either. So, again, I don't see how drawing that line moves us any further forward.

Colonel Tim Collins was quoted in Friday's Belfast Telegraph: "The correct thing now would be for the prime minister to draw a line under the whole Northern Ireland conflict ... because I think that the damage of 35 years of murder and subversion is being unfairly visited on the third and fourth generations of the people here."

That's a bizarrely simplistic approach. The problems are not going to go away by drawing a line under them: because, if that were the usual historical reality, then Collins would never have had to make an eve-of-battle speech to his troops in Kuwait 11 years ago.

Northern Ireland is plagued by unresolved problems and a fondness for either sidelining them, or ignoring them altogether. We have so many elephants in so many rooms we could turn Stormont into a safari park.

You cannot create a post-conflict society by drawing lines, turning a blind eye, ignoring unpleasant realities, or Pollyanna rhetoric. Those who would draw a line under the past don't seem to have addressed the real issue of how we get past us-and-them politics and an us-and-them Executive.

You can draw as many lines as you like, but there's always the danger of boxing yourself into somewhere worse.

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