Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

'Politics must focus on Northern Ireland of 2022, giving up debates about what did or didn't happen in 1972'

'Politics must focus on NI of 2022, giving up debates about what did or didn't happen in 1972' - Richard Nixon, who was US President in 1972
'Politics must focus on NI of 2022, giving up debates about what did or didn't happen in 1972' - Richard Nixon, who was US President in 1972

1972. Richard Nixon (died 1994) was US President. Edward Heath (died 2005) was Prime Minister. American soldiers were still fighting in Vietnam. The Cold War was a reality.

Our currency in the UK had just gone decimal the previous year. The Ford Granada was unveiled (the last rolled off the production line in 1994). And Elvis and Priscilla Presley separated.

It was 41 years ago. Approximately 54% of people living in Northern Ireland today had not been born in 1972. I am not part of that group - I was born in 1972.

Last week, however, our politics turned back to focus on the events of 1972 following the publication of a book alleging collusion between the security forces and loyalist terrorists at that time. Another round of debate has started about what did or did not happen in 1972.

For the record, no - I don't believe there was widespread collusion. Did some in the security forces act wrongly? Yes they did. Many, many others, however, went about their duties with integrity, protecting our entire community from loyalist and republican terrorism. If you disagree with me on that assessment, it is very unlikely that I will be able to persuade you otherwise.

And I find it nearly impossible to think anyone could persuade me that I am wrong on this. But this is not why I entered politics - to be endlessly debating events that occurred when I was an infant or before 54% of the population were even born.

Nor do I think that it is what most people in Northern Ireland want politics to be about. If our politics is to move forward, if politicians and institutions are to truly serve 21st century Northern Ireland, this debate has to be parked.

Endlessly debating the past - a past which, with every passing year, it becomes more difficult to accurately reconstruct - keeps us stuck in that painful, divisive era

But what of the victims of the Troubles? Last week, Rev David Clements challenged all of us involved in politics. He said that victims have been "misused by people, on both sides, to advance their own political agendas and that has not in most cases been for the benefit of victims themselves"

Perhaps it's time for those of us who are politicians to own up. We actually cannot change what people think about the Troubles, about who is a victim and who is not. Those, however, who carry physical or mental wounds from the Troubles, must receive appropriate care.

The vocation of the caring and healing professions is to tend to those who are ill, irrespective of background. So let's give the carers and healers the resources they need.

Those who commemorate loyalist or republican terrorists, will continue to do so even though I and very many others think it deeply wrong. My answer to them is simple: I will gather again this year for the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies to respectfully honour those who served and fell, defending democratic values.

I honestly do not believe any words can be as strong as the dignified, respectful silence of that day. The challenge for politicians today, and especially coming out of the Haass talks, is to reaffirm the promise of the Agreement, delivering the new Northern Ireland that the people were promised.

So let's have a politics focussing on the Northern Ireland of 2022, giving up debates about what did or did not happen in 1972.

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