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Alex Kane

Why we'll never be able to fix the past until we work out why it was broken in the first place

Alex Kane


Brandon Lewis' statement is merely a treading-the-water exercise... and the Secretary of State knows it, writes Alex Kane

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Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

The three key words in Brandon Lewis' statement are "past", "reconciliation" and "victim". As ever, victim remains the most difficult one of them, because there are still very significant differences between political parties, families of the deceased and survivors of shootings and bombings about how, precisely, to define the word.

Irrespective of what various pieces of legislation have tried to do, or of how often the word is used in discussions, the fact remains that many people are uncomfortable with what they perceive as an unfair and unjust effort to define all victims as the same.

Or as the widow of a UDR officer, shot while he was off duty, put it to me: "I cannot and never will accept that a definition of victim could ever include both my husband and, say, for example, any of the IRA members killed in Loughgall."

But, while she would be broadly sympathetic to the line in the statement, "... those who defended the rule of law deserve certainty that there will be an end to repeated questions about what happened during their service...", I'm pretty sure that many people who regard themselves or their dead/injured relatives as victims of what is sometimes described as "state terrorism", will be very angry.

So, yet again, what is intended to be a statement paving the way to progress does nothing more than leave us in precisely the same position as we are now, and have been since this very thorny issue was first raised during the talks process leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Which brings me to reconciliation.

Personally, I don't see how reconciliation is possible when there hasn't ever been a resolution to the key issue which divides us: namely, the constitutional issue.

In essence, the Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement and the flurry of other smaller agreements down the years (The Stormont House Agreement, Fresh Start and New Decade, New Approach being just the last three) have all been built on providing conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution.

Fair enough, violence may have been removed from the everyday dynamics (which is a very good thing, of course), yet there is very little evidence of what could be described as genuine, credible, political/community/societal/electoral reconciliation.

So, while Lewis' statement talks of "setting out how we propose to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that focuses on reconciliation... (and)... a better way to deal with the past is necessary, if we are to help the whole of society to effectively heal the wounds of the Troubles and become better reconciled with our difficult history ... ", it doesn't actually outline a strategy for achieving that goal.

And that's because that goal is not attainable: although no Secretary of State, Prime Minister or Taoiseach could ever, or would ever, admit it.

At the heart of the Troubles was a dispute about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That dispute wasn't resolved by the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, nationalism (particularly in the manifestation of Sinn Fein and the SDLP) still describes the Agreement as a "transition" phase to Irish unity.

And while the division between unionism and nationalism remains, and I cannot imagine that the division will ever be bridged, it will not be possible to reconcile constitutional positions which, by their very definitions, are mutually contradicting positions; and therefore it will be equally impossible to create a climate which could be described as reconciled.

In Northern Ireland the past is always in front of us. Those who regard themselves as victims regard themselves as victims of the "other" side. They believe that the "other" side remains unchanging in its outlook and unapologetic for its actions.

We defend our own past. We embrace and promote our own narrative. We continue to steer towards different constitutional end goals. Generally speaking, we continue to live in us-and-them areas and while there is some evidence of a shift towards what might be described as the "middle-ground", the vast majority of those who vote continue to do so for parties with a very clear position on the constitutional question.

Lewis argues in his statement: "It is the Government's view that to best meet the needs of all victims and of wider society, we need to shift the focus of our approach to the past ... It is proposed that these measures should be carried out by one independent body to ensure the most efficient and joined-up approach, putting the needs of the individuals most affected at the heart of the process. This body will oversee and manage both the information recovery and investigative aspects of the legacy system and provide every family with a report with information concerning the death of their loved one."

I don't actually know what he means. What is that "independent body" supposed to do? How does he even define the term "independent"? And I'm not actually persuaded that giving every family the information about how their loved ones were killed will either change their perception of themselves as a "victim" or push them in the direction of something they would view as reconciliation.

It will certainly do nothing to address the roots of the Troubles, let alone inspire some parties at the heart of the Executive to focus on the "new era" Northern Ireland that some people believed was possible when they voted 'Yes' in the 1998 referendum.

Post-conflict resolution and rebuilding is possible, and there are many examples of it over the last century, but only if you have reached a genuine post-conflict settlement. Addressing the needs of victims is possible and again there are many examples, but only if everyone from all sides of the dispute accepts and agrees that they want to move together towards the same end goal.

Reconciliation, at political/societal levels, is possible if all sides recognise how they tumbled into violence and now agree they want to build and sustain structures that will prevent a return to the problems of their collective past.

Sadly, I don't think we have any of those factors in play in Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge that many of the people who have spent time considering how we can find ways of healing wounds, recognising hurt and bringing former enemies together are genuine in their efforts.

My concern, though, is that they are trying to fix something without fully understanding why it was broken; while trying to use methods from other places which, unlike Northern Ireland, can be described as mostly post-conflict.

That being the case, this latest process is doomed to failure: particularly within a political/electoral climate in which unionism is focused on celebrating Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021, while Sinn Fein finds it impossible to see beyond a border poll and a united Ireland.

Like so many other efforts over the past two decades this latest one strikes me as a treading-the-water exercise. But it also strikes me that Mr Lewis is well aware that it is.

So, maybe it's time we left Einstein territory and accepted that doing the same thing over and over again can never lead to anything different.

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