Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass talks may flag up parade solution, but fail over past

De Silva admissions set a precedent for families, like Geraldine Finucane (right) and her children, from left, Michael, John and Katherine

Should sovereign governments – British and Irish for a start and perhaps even America and Libya – give a lead on dealing with our past? Could they set a standard and establish ground rules for non-state actors to follow?

This question is bound to be on the minds of Richard Haass and his team as they prepare for next Tuesday's talks.

Two of the issues they must deal with – flags and parading – are at least self-contained, so there is a realistic hope that progress can be made by Christmas.

The Haass team may even now be working through previous proposals so that they can present a blueprint for dealing with parading and flags, which the parties can work from.

The past is more difficult, as the Maze debacle showed. Seemingly innocuous terms like victim, combatant and conflict now carry so much baggage that people trip over them.

When it comes to the past, Dr Haass will have done well if he can point to a process that might help.

An obvious starting-point would be an acknowledgment by the two governments – and, if possible, other states – of their role.

Eamon Gilmore, the Tanaiste, (right) made a start on behalf of Ireland at a meeting of the British-Irish Association last weekend.

Mr Gilmore has previously proposed inviting unionists and members of the royal family to the 1916 centenary commemorations in Dublin.

The presence of such names on the guest-list would encourage the Republic to think creatively about how to remember a shared, but divided past, so as to heal wounds – not reopen them.

Last weekend, he went further. "We need to acknowledge the neglect and disappointment of nationalists, who feel that Irish governments did too little to their plight in the decades before the Troubles," he said.

He added: "We need to acknowledge those unionists who feel that, notwithstanding the sacrifices made by members of An Garda Siochana and the Irish army throughout the Troubles, the Irish state could have done more to prevent the IRA's murderous activities in border areas."

This echoed the apology issued by David Cameron, the prime minister, for Bloody Sunday. There is no doubt that, as Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United said, the Irish government could go further. But then so could all involved.

Although it didn't satisfy the bereaved family, the de Silva reports, admitting collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane, did set a precedent which could be applied more generally. It put many documents which would otherwise have been kept secret for decades, or even indefinitely, into the public domain. If governments adopted a policy of disclosure and acknowledgment, that would create a space for understanding to grow.

There will be a pressure on non-state actors, including paramilitaries and political parties, to openly acknowledge their own responsibilities, instead of constantly pointing the finger of blame at others.

They can start by admitting, like the Queen and Declan Kearney of Sinn Fein, who adopted her words, that there are things "which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all".

As Mr Gilmore put it, "We all need to find new ways of approaching our history."

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