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It's about time we faced up to grim legacy of the past

By Gail Walker

Published 15/09/2015

Talks are ongoing to re-boot Stormont
Talks are ongoing to re-boot Stormont

It's difficult not to be impressed by the ever-more rococo variations on political failure in Northern Ireland. There seems to be an endless supply of new ways for the "process" of peace to be upended and an equally endless supply of comment upon it, more or less informed, usually the latter.

It was remarked recently that all the protagonists in politics here have their origins in the days of the Troubles and it was thought that this is one reason why breakdown continues to occur. How can those who contributed to "war" be expected to deliver or sustain "peace"?

That appears sensible; until you realise that it is precisely those people who saw themselves so violently at odds with each other who, unexpectedly, did come to some terms in a climate of exclusively political progress.

The rest of us, not in the business of killing each other, weren't the main problem. You could always rely on us to compromise, give in, surrender, give way, rather than cause unpleasantness.

It was the hard nuts needed to make peace. As a matter of fact, that came about. Very many in the so-called centre ground resented that. People who had been nice all their lives and were ridiculed for it didn't like the fact that the hard men got kudos for relenting.

Many among the hard men, too, found the transition difficult. Even today, there are commentators on both sides who are markedly more extreme, more relentless, less accommodating, than those currently in power as republicans and representing shades of loyalism.

A certain frenzy grips both the centre and the unaligned extremes when the current structures at Stormont appear to be in meltdown.

This madness imagines that a complete breakdown will present an opportunity for the centre to take power and marginalise republicanism and the unionist bloc. Of course, once that idea is articulated, it is clear how irrational it is. It is as ridiculous to wish for the political blocs to change as it is to wish the people voted differently.

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists represent the vast majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the growth of the vote for both parties over years shows that they have attracted the support of those who were not traditional republican or DUP voters.

The fact is they have articulated the aspirations of nationalists and unionists in a much more persuasive way than the alternative parties. Nothing in this is a surprise.

What is a surprise is that, after all these years of "peace" and clear progress, the one factor which really underlies all existing discontent and disquiet remains unaddressed. It is, in two words, "the past"; in one word, "victims". Whatever about how the victims issue has been managed up to now - and it has been particularly cack-handed and crass - the legacy of our decades of violence has proved so toxic that almost every discussion of it is provoking, distressing and fruitless.

The issue of the past, of damage, needs to be tackled. Combatants, by-standers, the intended, the mistaken, the bereaved, the maimed, the accidental, the targeted, the ambushed, the bushwhacked, the disappeared, the bewildered - it may be necessary to invent multiple categories of impact to capture the full range of how much people here, our communities, lost in and around the years of conflict.

It is about the peace of mind of those bereaved and damaged; of course it is. But it is also about the capacity of a society which hopes to find solutions to welfare, health, jobs, fairness, education.

This issue is what lies behind the current furore over the existence of the IRA. The polarisation created by the theme cannot be allowed to obscure the simple fact that it is not a good thing that people are gunned down in the street at school time. This is not how a civilised society functions and whoever is responsible cannot feel that such action is sanctioned at any level, in any way.

Still less should our streets be the venue for murderous score-settling, or turf wars, regardless of the provocation or motivation.

As more talks occur designed to re-boot Stormont, engaging the democratic extremes as much as the centre, let there be leadership which simply sets out the mission to settle terms with the past, with those who suffered most and with those of the rest of us whose lives and memories and temperaments were radically altered by civic conflict. Really, now, if we are to have stability and progress as a society as an aim, it is time not just to be clear about the presence or otherwise of the IRA, but to acknowledge the wrongs that have been inflicted and sustained.

If history proves one thing it's this. Personal grievance and political hurt are not erased with the passing of those immediately affected. It is handed down, generation to generation. We can't condemn our children to that inheritance. This is the time to break that cycle.

Belfast Telegraph

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