Belfast Telegraph

We can't move forward if we do not look back

Martin McGuinness' Irish presidential run is a reminder of the need to confront the legacy of the past, says Naomi Long

Martin McGuinness' entry into the Irish presidential race has reopened the debate about his personal role in the IRA.

As he was questioned about his role, when he left and what involvement he had in some IRA atrocities, I couldn't help but feel that this was not the best way to deal with the past.

Victims and survivors of the IRA campaign were sought out to give their view on whether he is a worthy candidate for president.

No one would question that they have earned the right to have a view. But, when the furore has died down, will the debate have moved us any closer to the truth?

Do we not owe to those people a discussion about the past which is actually focused on their needs and those of the wider community?

Two years on from the NIO Consultation on Dealing with the Past and its Legacy, there has been no progress towards a more holistic approach which could offer society that prospect.

The consultation elicited plenty of responses, but little in the way of political agreement. Secretary of State Owen Paterson has repeatedly stated that political consensus is required to take the process forward and has acknowledged that such consensus will be hard to achieve.

I don't disagree. But after two years, it's also fairly clear that such consensus will not simply emerge of its own accord.

Rather, it needs to be actively pursued with local parties and I believe the Secretary of State has a duty to drive that process forward. Convening a meeting with local political parties would be a good starting-point.

The truth is that, as a society, we cannot move forward with confidence to build the shared future to which we aspire unless we deal comprehensively with the past and its legacy.

At present, we are settling for a piecemeal, fragmented approach; facing issues as and when they emerge, or calling for investigation when it suits a narrow political agenda.

Discrete inquiries may be worthy in their own right, but they run the risk of compounding hurt by ignoring some victims entirely, or even distorting our view of the past by considering events out of context.

It is surely imperative that we strive for an overarching process capable of addressing the individual pain of those who suffered and the wider need to heal divisions and learn the lessons of the past, so that we avoid repeating it.

Sadly, the controversy which surrounded the proposed £12,000 recognition payment entirely over-shadowed the greater potential at the heart of the Eames-Bradley report. The report was not perfect, but it provided a credible basis on which a process could be built.

The central recommendation for a legacy commission, with four separate elements of reconciliation, investigations, information recovery and thematic issues, offered a structure which could give coherence to those elements of existing good practice, such as the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, the Community Relations Council, and Commission for Victims and Survivors. It would also underpin the valuable work done by those community and voluntary groups who offer vital practical support to victims and survivors.

Time does not heal all wounds and the passage of time alone will not make the past less controversial, less painful or remove its potential to destabilise communities.

There is a wealth of international evidence that this is the case. Instead, with each passing year, many of those directly affected simply feel the opportunity to know even the basic truth of what happened to their loved-ones - let alone see justice done - slipping away.

These issues must be addressed in an inclusive and comprehensive way, not only for the sake of those individuals, but also for the good of wider society, so that the more prosperous, hopeful and shared future for which we are working can be built on stable foundations.

The time to do it is now.

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