Belfast Telegraph

How can we all move on together when truth is parked?

The Christmas season still reminds too many people in Northern Ireland of unfinished business from our troubled past, writes Alex Kane

Whatever else we may do at Christmas, we will reflect. We will reflect on Christmases past and think of the people who are no longer gathered around the dining table with us. For most of us, that means remembering parents and family who have passed on. Many of those memories, albeit tinged with sadness, will be happy memories.

Even in those cases where death has been caused by accident, or unexpected illness, most people have learned to accept and come to terms with the grief and loss.

But, across Northern Ireland, there are thousands of people who have not come to terms with the grief and loss. For them, Christmas merely adds yet another layer of unhappiness as they remember a husband, wife, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, or close family friend who was killed during the Troubles.

They may have been killed in 1970, 1983, 1997, or even post-Good Friday Agreement - the date doesn't actually matter. No, all that matters is that no one has been held to account for the killing. And in the absence of that knowledge, it is extraordinarily difficult for people to come to terms with the loss and find a way of containing the grief.

It's what we call the "legacy issue", although, in most cases, it's actually a very personal thing. For a few days in the aftermath of each of those killings, the names of the victims will have been the lead stories in newspapers and on television. There will have been footage of funerals and of hundreds of people gathering together to show solidarity with the family.

We will have heard churchmen and politicians say that there must be no revenge killings. Government ministers and security services spokesmen will have vowed to do everything required to track down the killers and bring them before the courts. The grieving families will have been inundated with letters of condolence.

Then nothing. Decades later and some of the families still have no idea who carried out the killing. No one has served a prison sentence. No one has been convicted.

In many cases, no one has even been questioned in depth. Their questions have gone unanswered. They have been told that Northern Ireland is in a "better place" than it has ever been and that there is an "opportunity to build a new-era Northern Ireland/Ireland".

Yet how, they wonder, can progress be possible when the truth and honesty they require remains hidden?

Many of them also believe that they are regarded as an embarrassment, because they continue to ask awkward questions and demand to be told uncomfortable truths.

They hear former paramilitaries talking about the need to fund reconciliation projects and "build cross-community" trust; yet hear nothing from them about why they killed so many people, let alone why they seem incapable of taking responsibility for their actions.

Worse, they hear politicians talk about the need to "move on together", yet see little evidence to suggest that they are capable of moving on together.

Instead, they see the same old finger-pointing, score-settling and division across the Assembly floor and in the day-to-day exchanges between all of the parties.

A few weeks ago, I talked to a woman whose son had been murdered in the early 1980s. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and no one has ever been convicted of his murder.

"I know now that I'll never know who murdered him. All I was left with was the hope that lessons would be learned and that organisations would, at the very least, accept some sort of collective responsibility for their actions and give an unambiguous apology," she said.

"But we never got that - there were always self-serving justifications thrown into the mix. And what I see at the Assembly is the same old squabbles and the same old faces trying to cover their bloody tracks.

"For me, the worst part in all of this is the absence of truth and the awful certainty that there'll probably never be any truth. How do you build change on that?"

Is that woman right? Is truth the primary casualty of the Troubles? Well, the very fact that the Fresh Start document had to "park" the legacy issue suggests that we are no closer to the truth now than we were at the time of the 1994 ceasefire, the 1998 Agreement, or the 2007 rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Secrets are going to be kept. Kept by the state, kept by paramilitary organisations and kept by political parties, too. And kept, I suspect, because all of the key players know that we're in "unfinished business" territory.

Nationalists still want Irish unity and unionists will still resist that. In other words, we're in a holding position, with no on-board agreement about where we want to go and, consequently, no incentive to come to terms with our joint legacy.

Truth and reconciliation must go hand in hand: but they can only go hand in hand when you have reached your final destination. We aren't there. I'm not even sure we will ever be there.

And that's why the "personal" legacy issue is so difficult for so many people. They haven't seen justice for their loved ones. They haven't seen anyone take responsibility as part of a broader effort to build a new Northern Ireland/Ireland. They haven't the certainty that the conflict is actually over, rather than just at an impasse.

Put bluntly, they are trapped in the worst of all possible worlds: without hope of justice for what happened in the past and without hope that the future will be better. For these people, the death, or disability, that was inflicted upon their families was not just wrong: many now believe that their loved ones died in vain.

Next year will be another very important one for reflecting on centenaries, like the Easter Rising and the Somme. But those reflections do nothing for the victims of our more recent conflict and won't bring us any closer to understanding where we are now.

We need to deal with our present realities, rather than focusing too much on what happened in 1916: because, let's face it, we don't even agree on what happened back then, either.

Truth is always useful, even in its most brutal and unpleasant manifestations. History requires truth. Peace and progress require truth. Those who have lived through a conflict require truth.

When you park truth, you park the entire political vehicle - because truth never travels alone.

Liam Clarke is away

Belfast Telegraph


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