Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why our future is history unless we deal with past

Next week's roundtable talks chaired by Richard Haass provide the perfect opportunity to grasp the nettle of Troubles legacy issues, writes Patrick Corrigan

As Richard Haass gets ready to fly in – like a lone US cavalryman coming to rescue our politicians from themselves – one of the big three issues his talks are meant to address is getting a lot less attention than the others.

Perhaps it is understandable, after the last 10 months of public disorder related to flag-flying and parades, that these two issues have come to dominate the pre-Haass political debate.

But it is the third of the roundtable talks strands – dealing with the past – that will surely test the ambition and ability of our leaders to find long-term solutions, not just short-term fixes.

What cries out from the pages of the major report published today by Amnesty International is that too many victims and their families – from right across the community – have been failed by the inadequate, fragmented processes for dealing with the past, which have been put in place to date.

Over the past 18 months, Amnesty has spent a lot of time speaking to victims and families in Northern Ireland affected by the violence of the past.

One family told us: "There are still a lot of broken hearts in Northern Ireland, families who need to know what happened and who need help to get that truth."

Many families echoed these sentiments, telling us about their search for the truth and their anger and frustration at being told to "move on", or "draw a line in the sand".

More underlined the need for recognition of what had happened to them, even if they accepted that there was no longer much prospect of having their "day in court".

One thing is clear: the past cannot simply be swept to one side.

And it's not just individual families and victims of violence who have been failed. It is wider society, too.

Unless and until we are able to deal effectively with our recent history, then our past will continue to haunt our present and future.

However, rather than a comprehensive approach to the past in Northern Ireland, in the 15 years since 1998, victims have been let down, with fragmented and piecemeal measures.

Various mechanisms do exist to examine historical killings – the Police Ombudsman, the Historical Enquiries Team, the Coroner's Service – but their work has been far from uniform and their findings have not, to date, been co-ordinated to expose the truth that lies in Northern Ireland's past.

This has left much of the truth hidden, those in positions of responsibility shielded and a lack of any shared public understanding of the abuses committed by all sides.

That is a failure of both the UK government – yes, Theresa Villiers, we mean you – and the Northern Ireland authorities.

In the end, Northern Ireland requires far more than political rhetoric around "a shared future".

It requires commitment and willingness by all players to address the past systematically; to establish the truth, identify and acknowledge the wrongs committed and to learn the lessons of history to ensure that past abuses are not repeated.

Without a comprehensive approach to address the legacy of the past, Northern Ireland's pain will continue to cast a long shadow.

Now – with Northern Ireland still facing violence and division, but with the opportunity of the Haass talks – is the time for leaders to garner the courage to finally agree a process on how to address our past and build a future that is both shared and sustainable.

Richard Haass may have a problem to solve. But, come December, he will be heading home to the US.

The rest of us are the ones with the real problem – we live here. We either agree a new process to deal with the past, or we run the risk of condemning our children to repeat it.

It is time to grasp the nettle.

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