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How much of the truth can we really handle?

We need someone like Joachim Gauck to advise us on the truth recovery process in Northern Ireland. Gauck (70) is the Lutheran pastor who served as his country's Federal Commissioner for the Stasi archives from 1990, when the office was set up, until 2000.

Gauck's task was to decide, with the help of a team of experts, how much of the record of the communist state in East Germany, or the DDR as it was known, should be made public.

By and large he went for disclosure, but in some cases files were held back where they might endanger individuals.

"In the initial years after 1990, there was a desire to close the curtain and not worry about all this, but this changed when it was realised that keeping secret files closed could be more dangerous than opening them," said Marianne Birthler, his successor.

In Germany, there has been a process of publication with some amendments to protect individuals from attack and preserve their right to life under the European Convention of Human Rights. Individuals have a right to request records about them and there was a planned publication programme of items of general interest.

The process has produced awkward moments when people discovered who had been reporting on them to the Stasi, the DDR's secret police.

Peter Miller, a Northern Ireland-born journalist based in Berlin in the 1980s, found Stasi officers sympathised with his wife because he left her to carry the heaviest packages on outings.

He found surveillance pictures of her staggering under the weight of a picnic basket. It was an awkward moment, but not as awkward as many people would face if all available records of their actions in the Northern Ireland Troubles were made available.

The parallel between Northern Ireland and the DDR is not exact - few would equate the RUC with the Stasi. However, we do have a security archive which is capable of solving many of the mysteries of our recent troubles.

This archive has been gathered together by the Historic Enquiries Team (HET), which was set up by the PSNI to review Troubles' murders. Most people don't realise how comprehensive this is.

All available evidence on the 3,268 Troubles' deaths has been assembled in a repository the size of the largest B&Q store near Lisburn. Besides police, Army and MI5 files, the HET has collated Press cuttings, the claims of paramilitary groups, the files of official investigations and more than 3,000 books on the Troubles.

At the click of a mouse investigators can produce graphs of all the attacks linked to a single weapon or arms shipment. They can, for instance, call up all information on red-haired gunmen or victims of the IRA's internal security department in a specific timeframe.

It is the largest, and most sophisticated, 'cold case' review exercise in history but despite all this effort, the PSNI believes that it will be lucky if it can produce even a handful of charges.

The trail is cold after so many years. Exhibits and individual items of evidence have not always been preserved properly and, although what has happened may seem obvious, there is seldom evidence of individual guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

This database contains the best clues we are likely to get to many unanswered questions of the Troubles. It may not be evidence that would stand up in court beyond reasonable doubt, but it is the raw material of history.

What is needed is a process of sifting and assessment by an independent body, which is where Gauck's advice would be useful.

To get results, strict rules of official secrecy would have to be suspended, though some details might need to be withheld for a fixed time period to protect life.

To command public confidence such a body would need real teeth.

A panel of historians, security experts and victims representatives could go through this material with a view to publishing as much as possible in a coherent and non-judgmental narrative.

They could have a remit to publish as full an account as possible and to review any information withheld at regular intervals - say every five years - to see if the circumstances are right to release it.

The body's remit could be extended to allow it to bring pressure on paramilitaries and individuals to co-operate, publicly indicating those who they believe hold vital information, but have refused to co-operate. They could name and shame and refusal to co-operate could carry the same penalties as contempt of court.

Publication of some information could compromise the hope of prosecution. We, as a society, would have to assess the trade-off between truth and justice.

Should individuals who co-operate be offered limited anonymity as they were at the Saville Inquiry? Or would it be best to leave out some details?

Such questions were answered differently in Soviet bloc countries. We, too, need to decide how much of the truth we can handle.