Why Cameron must back attempts to find the truth
Without the Government's support all the talk of truth and reconciliation will come to nothing, says Brian Rowan
Published 30/03/2011 | 08:00
On a recent visit to Belfast, civil rights activist the Rev Jesse Jackson put his name to the demand for some truth and reconciliation hearing in Northern Ireland - arguing that Prime Minister David Cameron should seize the opportunity.
On the 12th floor of the Europa Hotel, I listened as the small invited audience introduced themselves to their American visitor. Mark Thompson, of the group Relatives for Justice, explained: "Victims and survivors of republicans, loyalists and the state sit side-by-side."
As they spoke, we were taken back into the 1970s, to the bomb in the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast and then to Ballymurphy and the stories of civilians shot by soldiers.
Alan McBride was also in the audience. He turned the page to 1993 and the Shankill Road bomb in which his wife and father-in-law were among the dead. Another who spoke was a man wounded in a loyalist gun-attack on a bookmakers on the Ormeau Road the year before.
Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF, sat beside Seamus Finucane, brother of Pat Finucane, the Belfast solicitor shot dead by the UDA in 1989.
There were other stories about the horror of plastic bullets, about the barriers that still block the way to information and about the needs of the injured. One woman argued we should treat the dead "equally".
In that room in the Europa, some asked for truth and justice; others need services - practical help to cope with their wounds. Jesse Jackson told them: "Too few people know your story."
But there is no suggestion that the Government is interested in the type of truth and reconciliation hearing that the Rev Jackson suggested.
One source said recently the state was not going to put itself in the dock while organisations such as the IRA stick to a code of silence. So the writing of a report into the past may be left to a panel of experts and there will be a 'story-telling' element to the process. But for many that won't be enough.
"I think the governments will attempt to do the minimum," said Alan McBride. And Mark Thompson accepts there is a battle to be fought: "Governments won't move to do these things out of the goodness of their own hearts - you need to create the conditions and you need to create the environment.
"Everybody is going to have to be kicked into the room - every actor to the conflict."
And he believes influential figures can assist in the same way that Senator George Mitchell and General John de Chastelain helped with other difficult issues.
"Bringing external voices to this debate can only help the debate to get to a place where people want it," he said.
There is still no joined-up process to answer the questions of the past, but rather a piecemeal approach that includes the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) that is currently the target of loyalist protests involving the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party.
At some point, Secretary of State Owen Paterson will have to say something by way of a decision and sketching out a process.
Alan McBride believes it will amount to "the softest of all the options". And Seamus Finucane argues that the challenge for the British Government is to stop "managing the past" and to "put a proper truth process in place".
Getting there will depend on the co-operation of many - and not just governments and politicians.
Mark Thompson thinks we need some sort of 'hothouse' negotiation to deal with the issues. Others will prefer to keep things cold; to do as little as possible. There are too many ugly truths in hidden corners.
Rev Jackson told his Belfast audience: "You are not powerless." But they know, without political will, this process is going nowhere.