Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: We now know all about Paul O'Connor's past, but how many other diligent truth-seekers have the same skeletons rattling around in their closets?

The revelations about the director of the Pat Finucane Centre are just another example of how the past is being weaponised, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Director of the Pat Finucane Centre Paul O’Connor (right) with Robert Cunningham and solicitor Kevin Winters
Director of the Pat Finucane Centre Paul O’Connor (right) with Robert Cunningham and solicitor Kevin Winters
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Better late than never. At least when he was presented with evidence that he joined the IRA in 1970 as a 15-year-old, the director of the Pat Finucane Centre did not deny it. More senior figures than Paul O'Connor have regularly made a mockery of the truth by attempting to disavow their own links to terrorism.

The Derryman was certainly mealy-mouthed in insisting that he took part in no actions that resulted in loss of life, saying: "I did not create victims. None."

As a member of a paramilitary organisation, it's not possible to wash one's hands of its murderous activities by arguing that you were at home watching TV on the night of specific attacks.

 

He may also be justifiably criticised for not volunteering information before now about his chequered past. Those who demand accountability from others are in no position to hide their own misdeeds from scrutiny.

But is it really that much of a surprise?

Plenty of individuals involved in so-called "human rights campaigns" in Northern Ireland have been past abusers of those same human rights.

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Some are open about it, often because they have no choice, their previous convictions being a matter of public record. Others choose not to say. It would be absurd to demand that only those with clean hands should be allowed to contribute to the future or investigate the past. Everyone has a history. Each one of them is entitled to move on and make amends.

Unfortunately in Northern Ireland those who bleat most loudly about human rights tend not to be the slightest bit repentant about past acts of violence that suited their agenda.

They know the right buzzwords to parrot, but they've generally just found a way to continue the old fight by new means.

Pat’s son John
Pat’s son John

Republicans and loyalists alike have morphed seamlessly into a new civilian army of activists using unarmed struggle to advance their traditional war aims.

It's been hugely effective as a spur for consolidating support for the wider cause. By drawing a moral equivalence between terrorists and the state, they subtly undermine the rule of law and make their own armed responses back in the day seem if not reasonable, because no one in their right mind could defend sectarian murders, at least defensible and understandable.

The strategy has not been without risk, though, and one of those is that they've had to abandon any pretence at neutrality.

The Pat Finucane Centre has been tainted anew by this latest revelation, but it was a partisan organisation from the off and its claim to be otherwise should always have been taken with a pinch, if not an oceanful, of salt.

Look at the reports it produces. Despite a statement that "all participants to the conflict have violated human rights", its publications are, with rare exceptions, a predictable parade of one-sided rhetoric about "British lies" and the evils of colonialism. The same goes for its sister organisation in the Republic, Justice for the Forgotten.

No one who was a victim of the IRA could reassuringly feel that the Pat Finucane Centre is there for them any more than the late Willie Frazer's various organisations were there to comfort nationalists victimised by the state.

Pat Finucane
Pat Finucane

Even the fact that the centre adopted the totemic name of Pat Finucane was a calculated statement of intent.

Finucane was a solicitor who represented many IRA members. Fair enough. Every accused person has the right to a defence. Presenting him as a "human rights lawyer" was where it all went wrong.

Why was he a human rights lawyer, but not those who represented British soldiers charged with murder? What's the difference?

That he was himself alleged to be a senior member of the IRA complicated matters when it came to the centre adopting his totemic name.

It could have picked a more neutral one, such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, or something equally innocuous. It didn't.

Then they complain when they're not accepted as honest brokers in the same way Sinn Fein did after naming a playground in Newry after hunger striker Raymond McCreesh. It's not possible to do that and then play the innocent when it causes consternation.

This latest row is another example of how the past has been weaponised.

The result is being seen, horribly, in North Belfast in the sinister and threatening posters which have gone up targeting the Finucane family.

It's still disingenuous to pretend that any one side has a monopoly on virtuous impartiality.

When he recorded a video statement about the banners, thanking those who'd offered support and sympathy, and saying that "this election is not about hate and division, it's about Brexit", John Finucane chose to do so while standing in front of a large, prominent picture of Pat Finucane. What has his father to do with "our Remain voice"?

As a child John saw his father being murdered. With his family now being targeted in this alarming way, he is entitled to assert his solidarity.

But, be honest: what would nationalists say if the DUP's South Belfast representative, Emma Little Pengelly issued an election video in front of a picture of her father?

Noel Little denies allegations that he was a gunrunner for Ulster Resistance, insisting: "I'm not a supporter of violence of any kind." That hasn't stopped prominent republicans demanding that she answer for her father.

Sinn Fein's North Belfast candidate is not just running as an ordinary man called John Finucane. The video shows him to be campaigning very much as a member of a certain family with all the connotations, positive and negative, that come with the name.

The Pat Finucane Centre cannot dissociate itself from those entanglements either, however many bullish statements it issues to deny charges of political bias.

Loyalists who are holding sinister public meetings right now to recklessly inflame unionist fears of betrayal over Brexit, and supporters of John Finucane in North Belfast and the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, are each trying to present complex issues as if they're simple and self-contained.

It's difficult to give either of them the benefit of the doubt as they do so.

If the result is an entirely foreseeable stoking of sectarian tensions, it's disingenuous to pretend that wasn't the intention all along.

The real question which Paul O'Connor's reluctant confirmation of his IRA past raises is how many more of those who present themselves as disinterested seekers after truth have the same skeletons rattling in their closets and why the organisations they represent all seem to think they have a right to rake in rafts of public money while deliberately keeping the public, who foot the bill, in the dark about their real motives.

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