Northern Ireland's past will keep coming back to bite us ...unless we agree a new way forward
It is not quite a perfect storm, but the last few days have been a reminder that the peace process could suffer serious setbacks in rows over security.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are off to China next Monday. They need to keep a united front till then. If they don’t get a handle on it the whole issue of Sinn Fein’s unresolved conflicts with the criminal justice system could spin out of control in their absence.
The murder of David Black, arrest of Padraic Wilson and nationalist support for dissident prisoners have all put a strain on relations between the two big parties. Any of these issues would test relationships on their own, but, as Shakespeare put it, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”.
Mr Black’s assassination made him the first prison officer to be killed since 1993. The majority of the others were victims of the Provisional IRA. Some of them will have been friends of Mr Black, so it is understandable that his family told Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, to stay away from the burial.
Funerals are primarily for the benefit of the bereaved, not a service to society at large, and the family’s wishes are paramount. Still, it can’t be denied that the attendance of Mr McGuinness alongside Peter Robinson at the funeral of Ronan Kerr, the last PSNI officer to be killed, sent a powerful message of communal solidarity.
That is a message the two leaders still need to project, whatever their difficulties. In China they will attempt to present Northern Ireland as a secure place, at peace with itself, where it is safe to invest and travel. Last week Mr McGuinness did his best. “Everybody within society,” he said “needs to give wholehearted support for gardai and PSNI in thwarting the activities of those who would try to nudge us back to the past”.
He and Mr Robinson were on message, but in recent days their parties have fallen to squabbling over the unresolved legacies of the Troubles, the past back to bite them, opening old wounds. Monday’s furious debate in the Assembly over the case of Sammy Brush and Gerry McGeough exposed deep divisions. McGeough was a wanted IRA man, now a critic of Sinn Fein, who thought it safe to come home and contest elections once the Troubles were over. He was wrong. He was arrested as he left the count centre and subsequently convicted of the attempted murder of Sammy Brush, a part-time soldier, who was attacked while working as a postman in 1981.
Mr Brush is now a DUP member of Dungannon Council, where last month nationalists supported a successful Sinn Fein motion calling for McGeough’s release.
The rationale seemed to be that now the conflict was over old offences should be forgotten so that we can move on. Sinn Fein councillors went on to call for the release of Marian Price, a dissident prisoner, and Martin Corey, a former IRA inmate whose licence was revoked. “All three are being detained due to their political beliefs,” maintained Padraig Quinn of Sinn Fein.
The latest strain occurred when Padraic Wilson, a former IRA prison leader, was arrested and charged with taking part in IRA meetings following the death of Robert McCartney.
In response, old republican rhetoric was recommissioned. “Politically motivated charges,” said Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, a former IRA prisoner, who blamed “elements of the ‘old guard’ who remain within the policing structures”. Other irritants are waiting in the background and could come centre stage at any moment. In the Boston College case the PSNI is seeking biographical tapes recorded by former IRA activists which allegedly link Gerry Adams and other republicans to the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. Then there are allegations of child abuse involving senior republicans which are now before the courts.
The fact that Troubles-era offences, or IRA membership, are still punished as crime, provides an unwelcome reminder to republicans that they came closer to losing the war than winning it.
The police are bound to follow up these cases when evidence is available. Troubles-era offences carry a maximum sentence of two years.
Apart from that, no line has been drawn under the past because none of the main parties could stomach that. In 2006 legislation to allow Troubles-era fugitives, so called on-the-runs, to register their offences at a tribunal without suffering any penalty collapsed. Unionists didn’t like it and Sinn Fein couldn’t stomach the idea that security force offenders would also benefit.
The Eames-Bradley Report in 2009 proposed an overall Legacy Commission to sort out the issues of Troubles-era offences and the rights of victims, but was rejected.
Yet, unless we accept some mechanism to deal with the past, the alternative is decades of crisis management.
The dissidents will attempt to deepen any rifts which appear. So without an agreed way forward, our politicians must learn to keep their heads and bite their lips when the going gets tough.