Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Robin Eames' ideas offer no shortcuts to an agreed Northern Irish past

Will Lord Eames' proposed redefinition of what constitutes a 'victim' bring us any closer to resolving the outstanding issues of the Troubles? Malachi O'Doherty has his doubts

People search for victims after Shankill bomb in 1993
Agnes McConville, the daughter of missing IRA victim Jean McConville, watches as gardai dig for her body near Carlingford, Co Louth
Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, who were tasked to deal with the issue of victims, but whose report was shelved

Robin Eames is a natural diplomat. He has been chosen in the past by the Church to work out reports with the finest distinction between arguments, as when he drew up proposed solutions to the division over gay clergy. He knows better than most people in public life how to be careful with his words.

So if he has said, as reported in the Church of Ireland Gazette, that the definition of a victim needs to be reconsidered to take account of the difference between those who were and weren't involved in unlawful activity, then that's what he means.

And the implications of that statement are enormous. For it does not come from a unionist politician, or victims' campaigner, who might be expected to say something like that; it comes from one of the architects of the Eames/Bradley report, which said plainly that it would be "both fruitless and self-defeating" to continue debating the definition issue.

Eames/Bradley's conclusion was that we needed to start the investigation of the past on the understanding that everyone had a legitimate position and only rule on who was right and wrong at the end of it.

Eames appears to have decided that it is even more fruitless and self-defeating to try to resolve the past and the grievances of victims now by working on the legal assumption that a victim is anyone who has suffered through the Troubles.

The big question is whether going back and redefining "victim" – as he appears to propose – to exclude those who were breaking the law at the time they were killed or injured will take us any closer to a resolution of major questions which still divide communities.

By the Eames approach, anyone who was in a paramilitary organisation cannot be presumed to be a victim. No soldier or police officer, informer or agent, who was acting illegally, can be regarded as a victim either.

Those who will be most vociferous in rejecting this are likely to be Sinn Fein. They want there to be an understanding at the heart of political progress here that the IRA was legitimately engaged in a necessary "war" against British occupation and for the rights of nationalist people.

Few if any outside their movement will agree with that, but they will not allow that the sniper or bomber who was acting under orders of the IRA command was any more a criminal than the soldier who patrolled the streets, or the traffic cop who might have been the target of that sniper.

This is not a minor point of principle for republicans, it is at the heart of their definition of themselves; it is the principle that 10 hunger strikers died for.

It may seem common sense to others that this is hokum, but Sinn Fein can not concede that point.

Nor, however, at a time when they are advancing in the south as the party opposed to austerity, do they really want to be drawn back into an argument that they had long regarded as settled.

Instead of discussing economics on current affairs programmes on RTE, they'd be drawn back again and again into the question of whether the Shankill bombers and the killers of the Disappeared, such as Jean McConville, were legitimately soldiers fighting a good war.

As they approach the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, republicans want to establish in the minds of future generations the understanding that the Provisional IRA has an honourable place in the same tradition.

Robin Eames cannot have spoken with any lack of awareness of how any move to change the definition of a victim would challenge that aspiration.

Unionists and many in the victims' sector will be heartened by his suggestion that victimhood should be redefined to exclude the lawbreaker, but they face problems of their own.

Implementing such a definition would require close scrutiny of many of the killings of the Troubles period. It is the very scale of that scrutiny that, for many, will make pursuit of redefinition unattractive.

What of the informant, killed by paramilitaries, like Eamon Collins, who broke the law in the service of the State? The stories of many of those who crossed lines of legality in the "dirty war" will need to be kept secret for years to come; at least, that is how those most sympathetic to the security forces will want it.

If Eames' ideas have been reported correctly, they are no shortcut to an easier and less-complicated analysis of the past. They suggest that we start the exploration of the past on the understanding that the laws of the State decide who was in the right and who in the wrong through a conflict over the very legitimacy of that State.

Many of the resolutions reached so far have already diluted that principle. They accepted, for instance, that paramilitary prisoners were politically motivated in a conflict that was the legacy of history and should be freed early if they accepted the Good Friday Agreement.

Taking a firm stand over the letter of the law as the arbiter of victimhood will read to many like a reversal of compromises that bought us what peace we have. The implication of what Eames is saying is that those past compromises are not the foundation of a fair future.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk