Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

State has moral duty to leave the legal door ajar

Attorney General John Larkin

Attorney General John Larkin will know the old legal adage: "The greater the truth, the greater the libel." In Mr Larkin's case, the greater the truth he has expressed about bringing down the legal shutters on the past, the greater the libel he has committed against those who have suffered most in the past 40 years.

I remember 1972 only too well. Around 2,000 bombs exploded that year in Belfast alone. The dead totalled close on 500. Those wounded and maimed ran to thousands.

Belfast was the Baghdad of the Western world, a living hell of a place, where no one felt truly safe.

My memory lays the responsibility firmly at the feet of the IRA and other republican groups and loyalist paramilitaries. They were all so collectively out of control and visiting such vengeance, not only on one another, but on totally innocent people that I am not surprised elements of the State forces resorted to the kind of behaviour highlighted in the BBC Panorama probe.

When law and order breaks down, as it had done in 1972, and a State cannot provide sufficient comfort for the general public through arrests and convictions, panic sets in. The pages of modern history are littered with examples from many countries.

In Northern Ireland's case, internment by-passed the due process of law. Conventional security methods gave way to a dirty war, where elements within the State's forces now admit they resorted to summarily executing civilians on the streets – much as terrorists were doing on a much grander scale.

Will we ever know the whole truth about it all, from the terrorist groups or from the forces of the State? Of course not. Not now, or probably ever in our lifetimes.

Still, the debate goes on. As the American diplomat Richard Haass is finding out for himself, there is no end of ideas, proposals, or arguments relating to how Northern Ireland deals with its terrible past.

When we listen to the victims groups and to the politicians, as we have done in the past week in their reactions to Panorama and to the comments of Mr Larkin, we should acknowledge one basic truth: there is no consensus. There is no prospect of an agreed way forward.

Dr Haass is facing mission impossible. He only has to listen to the people whom he has met so far and to read their presentations to reach that conclusion. At best, he may distil the evidence presented to him into a template for further debate and discussion. If the full truth was revealed of what happened in the past, can we even be certain that Northern Ireland would be the better for it?

Year after year, the pursuit of truth and quest for justice becomes evermore costly and difficult. The years dim the memory, even for people who want to remember.

Witnesses are aging or dying. Who knows what contribution Fr Alec Reid might have made to the search for truth, but now he, too, has gone.

Meanwhile, a new generation wants to forget and to move on in the hope that the past will never revisit Northern Ireland.

There is no all-encompassing answer to be found. Memories remain too raw; political and cultural differences too wide.

Too many of those involved in the past are still too prominent in public life today. Northern Ireland in its entirety is not ready to forgive, or forget.

However, just because truth cannot be found is no reason to short-circuit justice. Perhaps we need a definitive opinion poll to gauge the public mind. I suspect that the vast majority of law-abiding citizens, who abhorred violence, are not prepared to let off the hook those who were involved.

Those who murdered must live with their lies and their conscience.

For some, it must be cold comfort that they have not be found out, whether they are respected politicians now, or simply ageing ex-members of the republican and loyalist terror groups, or members of the security forces, who acted beyond the letter of the law and the normal rules of engagement.

True, many, who should be made to answer publicly for their crimes, still walk the streets among us, harbouring the most appalling secrets.

They have not been found out and they may well live out their lives without any betrayal of what they did to other human beings.

The process of dealing with the past remains wholly unsatisfactory, extremely costly and time-consuming.

Leaving the legal door ajar, for possible future convictions, is in keeping with the moral duty of the State and upholds the principles upon which a civilised society should adhere.