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Non-inclusive legacy system will just cause new problems

The Belfast Telegraph's revelation that 150 ex-soldiers want IRA attacks on them investigated by police here has again thrust the question of the past centre-stage. But while republicans are fully engaged with the issues, it may already be too late to bring loyalists on board, argues Graham Spencer

Published 04/02/2016

Winston Irvine has focused on the lack of consultation while ‘Plum’ Smith says digging at the truth will only bury it further
Winston Irvine has focused on the lack of consultation while ‘Plum’ Smith says digging at the truth will only bury it further

Brian Rowan's recent piece in The Irish Times on the problem of legacy is the most important public contribution to date on this divisive and difficult area.

Rowan's piece is significant not because of any solutions offered, but because of the vital questions it poses and which politicians and governments have so far ignored.

Such questions, which indicate real concerns (even dangers) with a legacy process, are evident in relation to a few immediate points that arise.

Interestingly, the piece is largely - although not entirely - structured around the two key competing faces of loyalism and republicanism.

Interesting, too, is how two high-ranking loyalists are named and pictured, while republican sources remain anonymous.

Clearly this anonymity is related to Sinn Fein claims that the IRA no longer exists and where naming individuals associated with the IRA (formerly or otherwise) would both contradict the Sinn Fein claim and dent its electoral credibility as a result. Having said that, the comments made in Rowan's report warrant serious attention as, for example, with one "senior republican leader" who argues that a legacy process for republicans would be very much about "institutional memory" and "corporate narrative", while at the same time enabling "the highest level of information recovery".

Here we hit an issue of real conflict, which is when a legacy process means that information gleaned will be as fully as possible absorbed, assessed and used to reinforce a pre-existing dominant group narrative.

Within such constraints the desirable outcome would therefore be that nothing would be given or made known which would be likely to upset or destabilise that narrative.

Individual pain and experience, though in some cases no doubt acknowledged, would in all likelihood be tightly controlled and used foremost to support and build political capital.

The comments of the republican source, honest though they may be, make no reconciliatory gesture, offer little in the way of compassion and show a glaring lack of generosity to others.

In contrast, the loyalist respondents William 'Plum' Smith and Winston Irvine talk about legacy through a series of questions rather than propositions.

Smith's point - that digging at the truth will simply bury it further and that building the hopes of victims is not only wrong, but damaging - hints at central concerns about what a legacy process is for, how it will work and, most importantly, how will it help Northern Ireland move away from the chains of the past.

Smith's inference is that rather than help victims, a legacy process could increase pain, and indeed re-victimise those seeking answers for the murder or ill-treatment of loved ones.

In relation, Irvine's response to the problem of legacy is focused on the lack of public consultation about what such a process can achieve, who will be expected to be involved and what those who participate can realistically expect from that involvement.

The governments and the parties in Northern Ireland have so far kept well clear of the important issues raised in Rowan's article, preferring instead to concern themselves with the mechanisms and design of a legacy process rather than engaging with the emotive issues which will inevitably arise (and make no mistake, emotion is not as easy to contain as a set of policy goals) and which will probably determine the outcome of a process much more powerfully than any design can possibly envisage or predict.

In turn, one might pessimistically add that if the design of a legacy process is not constructed to accommodate, absorb and help with the multitude of possible dangers and anxieties which lurk beneath the undisclosed past, it will surely create a lot more problems than it will resolve.

Overwhelmingly, this is a problem of consultation and imagination. If we look at the formative stages of the legacy process design we may well conclude that it has been mishandled simply because a large cohort of protagonists within the conflict have not been consulted or brought into its planning.

Because of this those protagonists have become suspicious of "dealing with the past", its implementation taking on a coercive rather than persuasive appeal.

And, given the history and lessons of inclusivity in the peace process, to not have kept all stakeholder groups in the consultation and planning process seems strangely self-defeating.

Here I am talking particularly about loyalists and their omission from discussions about legacy design. There would have been no Good Friday Agreement without loyalists, and a number have since assisted formal bodies which have been employed to look at how the past might be grappled with (most notably the Consultative Group on the Past and Haass).

Yet, knowing who those people and groups are, the two governments have treated them largely as incidental to legacy. To say this is short-sighted is an understatement.

Trying to come up with a possible reason why that has been the case leads one to think that this was probably based on the simplistic view that one group of protagonists in the conflict would take part in a legacy process simply because their opponents will. And so, as in this case, that loyalists will predictably turn up to the respective legacy bodies if only to stop republicans having all the say.

Yet, what if this does not happen? And where is the incentive for those, like loyalists, to participate given their lack of involvement in any preparatory planning and design?

All this strongly points toward a wider social landscape where the legitimacy and value of a legacy process has not been persuasively made.

The purpose of such a process and its collective worth therefore remains unclear, and with that lack of clarity public anxieties start to take hold.

This uncertainty is further exacerbated by the more obvious and unanswered questions which it gives rise to such as: is the overarching emphasis of a legacy process restorative, retributive, or founded on peace-building principles? How might different justice and truth models come into play? What protective measures will be put in place to help ensure that different narrative strands become complementary rather than competitive (or even combustible)?

And, perhaps most significant of all, what evidence or guarantee is there that Northern Ireland will be able to loosen itself from the entrapment of conflict and not be pulled towards new forms of division and hatred?

Interactions behind closed doors might be essential in all this, but how, if the processes of engagement are confidential, can the argument then be made that Northern Ireland is beginning to heal itself?

How, to put it slightly differently, can the argument for success be made without dominant narratives coming back into play and so stories about winners and losers being used to influence expectations and perceptions? Moreover, how can the pain of victims be assuaged or eased with any certainty?

It's hard to imagine how the Bloody Sunday Inquiry could have been more thorough, yet that thoroughness has, for many, only confirmed that legal justice must be seen to be done; that there should be a next stage and that until demands for that next stage are met the sore of Bloody Sunday will continue to exist.

Timescales for legacy bodies can be imposed, but emotion, resentment, trauma and demands for justice or information cannot be so easily contained.

Pain does not have a deadline.

Take some of the questions above, put them alongside the Rowan piece, and you have the basis for a substantive public debate that should have been in place some time ago.

A legacy process may need to be designed by politicians such as Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, but its value and benefits have to have social traction and to gain that traction a critical minimum of core arguments and concerns have to be dealt with beforehand.

The fact that the first real indication of this has come from a journalist rather than political parties or governments is worryingly indicative of a desire to avoid difficult but necessary conversations rather than meet them head on.

Going on how things have been handled so far, the portents for a legacy process in Northern Ireland point more towards failure than success.

I hope I am wrong.

Dr Graham Spencer is reader in political conflict at the University of Portsmouth and author of The State Of Loyalism In Northern Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan)

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