Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

On the runs: Open and transparent process such as that suggested by John Larkin needed is for Northern Ireland to move forward

First Minister Peter Robinson at Hillsborough Castle last week
First Minister Peter Robinson at Hillsborough Castle last week

If anyone wanted proof of how the history of the Troubles can damage politics in Northern Ireland, they have only to look at the events of the past week.

A week ago, who would have believed that Peter Robinson would, in a matter of days, be threatening to resign as First Minister, an act which would bring the institutions of government crashing down.

Now, yes, the way London has handled on-the-runs has been appalling. When NI21 backed Attorney General John Larkin's proposal on how to handle the Past, we were open and transparent in calling for an open and transparent process.

We set the facts before the people of Northern Ireland - that convictions for offences during the Troubles are now highly unlikely; that a long drawn-out series of investigations and tribunals would only bring more division and more hate; that our politics would be poisoned for the next generation if we didn't take the decision as a society to move forward.

What London has done is been entirely different. The people have not been trusted with the facts; the system of letters only applied to republicans (what about security force personnel?); the Executive and Justice Minister were not informed.

And now, yet again, Northern Ireland's politics is thrown into crisis because of events that happened in the 1970s and 1980s.

When Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner took the decision to collapse Stormont in 1972 - because of the acts of the London government - I am sure he and most others had no idea of the consequences.

I was an infant when this happened. By the time devolution was restored to Northern Ireland, I was in my 30s. A whole generation had come of age in a Northern Ireland without democratic governance, without political institutions truly accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. And violence filled the vacuum.

Now, in 2014, another First Minister makes the threat to resign and crash the institutions. Whether he was right or wrong to make the threat is besides the point. The point is this is what the Past does to our politics. It drags us back, it destabilises, it divides. It poisons the body politic.

Imagine, then, another 10 or more years of tribunals and investigations, looking into the actions of the state as it tried to hold the line against terrorism from all sides in a society teetering on the brink.

Imagine the discord and rancour this would produce, the endless name-calling debates in the Assembly - all over events that happened before a growing number of people in Northern Ireland were even born.

Is this really what Northern Ireland needs? Is this really how we want our politics to develop over the next decade? Do we really think that this is the type of politics that will inspire our younger citizens to stay in Northern Ireland - never mind become involved in politics?

The past week demonstrates more clearly than ever that through an open and transparent process, such as that suggested by Larkin, we as a society need to move forward. Every assistance possible should be given to victims and survivors seeking to rebuild their lives after injury and loss.

We cannot, however, allow our politics to be defined by the events of the 70s and 80s. 21st century Northern Ireland cannot be torn apart by what happened in 20th century Northern Ireland. We have a stark choice: we move forward or we remain where we are.

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