Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Where was the mercy for victims of Hyde Park?

Peter Hain said that "Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was"
Peter Hain said that "Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was"

It was a dirty, dishonourable war. Is anybody surprised that we have a dirty, dishonourable peace?

The row over the On The Runs – those murky, faceless figures from the past, returning once again to threaten the whole precarious political set-up – reveals the usual rotten mix of errors, desperation, incompetence, obfuscation and denial that defines the behind-the-scenes world of the "peace process" (as we are still forced to call it, in the absence of a more accurate name for the state of semi-hostile stasis we find ourselves in.)

For all the outrage bouncing around the airwaves or splurged across pages of newsprint, and for all the noisy clamour to discover who knew what and when about the OTR arrangements, it's no secret that Northern Ireland is a place where the politically and morally unthinkable can be done.

If it is determined to be in the broader interests of peace, almost anything goes. As long as we are not actively engaged in killing each other, all sorts of nefarious behaviours – some overt, some covert – can be ignored, tolerated and, in some cases, indulged.

That precedent was established long ago. The latest convulsions are just a sign that we are being forced, once more, to face up to it.

Sometimes it's the smallest details that stick in the craw; or rather, it's those minor incidentals that make you realise, yet again, the enormity of what we have been asked to swallow.

For me, it was the term "letters of comfort", the billets-doux sent to IRA suspects to provide them with "a clear and unequivocal assurance" that they were no longer wanted by any police force in the UK. Others may have been extended the "royal prerogative of mercy".

Comfort. Mercy. Such sweet, soothing, reassuring words. I look at the old black and white photographs of Hyde Park in 1982, the blasted bodies of those noble horses lying where they fell. Four soldiers died too. Where was the comfort and mercy there?

Like I said, though, there's no point getting het up about injustice now. Yes, the OTR deal, thrashed out behind closed doors by the glib, ever-pragmatic Blair government, was pretty repulsive.

But we've already sold our souls to the devil, in the hope of a divine future that, so far at least, has failed to arrive. It's way too late to take the high moral ground, which we collectively vacated when – out of weariness, out of desperation, out of wild, irrational hope – we signed up to the big peace deal all those years ago.

Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, is confident that it was all worth it, pointing out that "Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was". He insists that the "endgame" to bitter conflict is always especially difficult, and that "abnormal measures ... were necessary to normalise Northern Ireland, just as bringing closure to other bitter conflicts around the world has required governments to do controversial and difficult things".

In short, Hain thinks the end justifies the means. This is one of the most striking facets of our twisted little war, and its imperfect resolution: politicians from elsewhere feel perfectly relaxed, even blasé, about suspending basic principles of decency and fair play, in a way they would never countenance in any another situation, and certainly not on their own doorsteps.

Northern Ireland is a foreign country; they do things differently there. But in one sense, Hain is right. We may live in the weirdest, most dysfunctional corner of Western Europe, but the machinations of the peace process, ugly and distasteful as some of them were, have ensured that our Troubles are indeed over. More or less.

The price we have paid, to get here, is the abdication of our moral conscience. We swallowed things we knew were wrong, things that flew in the face of natural justice – the release of murderers, letting terror suspects go free – because we wanted it all to be over, for peace to prevail.

So there's no point scrabbling to get our integrity back again. That's gone for good.

What we need, now, is not moral posturing from Peter Robinson or anyone else. No chest-thumping please, no crocodile tears. Ironically enough, what we do need is pragmatism, a cold, hard determination to keep the ramshackly show on the road.

We gave up our principles for this.

The very least they can do, in return, is to make it worth our while.

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