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How only time will tell the future for our past

Tony Blair came to power in 1997 as the first British Prime Minister since the war who had no personal memory of the threat of Nazi invasion and the aerial bombing of British cities.

The speculation then was that he was perhaps not cut out for war and wouldn't have it in him to send troops overseas to kill or be killed.

David Cameron, at 44, was a child at the start of the Troubles, and could have no personal memory of the most dramatic crises; internment, Bloody Friday, or the Claudy bomb.

This applies, too, to the great moments which were, or should have been, particularly instructive for the British: the Birmingham pub bombs and the rush to convict, the Ulster Workers Council Strike, the proroguing of Stormont, or the first talks with the IRA leadership.

When Margaret Thatcher responded to the Ballygawley bus bomb, which killed eight soldiers, Cameron was only 22; he wasn't even out of his teens when she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and lost the faith of unionists.

On Bloody Sunday, he was five years old, and it seems fair to assume that he was not glued to the television watching the death-toll rise.

Which means that he perhaps doesn't have the emotional scars that would make his dealings with the past here both urgent and difficult. One of the weighty matters in the intray of his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson (born 1956), is the question of how to wrap up the unresolved questions of the past, and do justice to the victims.

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All efforts under the last Government and our Assembly have only confirmed how complicated the question is. There must be enormous temptation on Cameron and Paterson to find some way of closing down the demands for a resolution that seems impossible.

The Victims Commissioner was to be a single post and the Assembly just couldn't bring itself to put all the responsibilities of the job into a single pair of hands.

The resolution was to have four commissioners, one representing each of the four major political strands here.

Rightly now there should be a vacancy. The process of finding a replacement for Mike Nesbitt, the unionist commissioner, will be difficult, for no one will want to advertise the post in such blatant terms. It probably wouldn't even be legal to.

Currently the Commission for Victims and Survivors, as it is called, is consulting with a Victims Forum on other near impossible questions. Discussion on how many victims there are, at a recent meeting, saw one commissioner explain that the number 200,000 was unrealistic and that if they wanted to make a solid case for government money they would have to bring it down.

Then there is the question of whether those who participated in violence can be victims, too.

There will never be agreement on that, for it requires that paramilitaries have equal legitimacy on the record with the Army and the police.

We have also had a run of inquiries, the major Bloody Sunday inquiry and the minor inquiries like those into the deaths of Rosemary Nelson, Billy Wright, and Robert Hamill. The Patrick Finucane inquiry is stalled on the family's determination that it should be full and open.

There is murk everywhere. Why not an inquiry into the paramilitary organisations themselves to identify and convict their warlords? Some chance.

The past is an embarrassment. Yet Labour thought it was worthwhile trying to resolve its miasmic claims on the public conscience.

So there was an Historical Enquiries Team (HET), now being run down. The Chief Constable of the time, Sir Hugh Orde, specifically said that he wanted the HET to answer to the families of the victims, to seek to meet their needs for information rather than to pursue prosecutions.

The problem is that there is no consistent victim position, or single coherent victim need. The largest project to find a way out of the murk was the appointment of the Eames Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.

Eames and Bradley and their team came up with some radical thoughts. One that missed media notice was the direct challenge to the churches to take responsibility for bloody sectarianism.

The suggestion of a recognition payment of £12,000 to the families of all those who died was batted away with a scorn that carried all their other plans into the ditch with it.

Yet Archbishop Eames and Denis Bradley had recognised that if there was not a major process established, the drip of legitimate demands for inquiries and the overturning of Diplock cases and the payments of compensation to former prisoners would be both hugely expensive and wearing on the morale of the victims. And with policing and justice devolved to the Assembly, much of the cost of this might just have to come out of the block grant.

Would Cameron pick up the tab for compensation for former paramilitaries who had won claims of wrongful conviction, while the victims of the organisations these people had cheered along got nothing?

Owen Paterson's first act in office was to call for the immediate publication of the Bloody Sunday Report. It is huge. He won't have time to read it all.

But when he feels the weight of it and looks at the cost he will resolve without difficulty that there should never be another inquiry like it.

Then he will have to come up with a new idea for putting the past behind us, totally settling all of its claims on cash and conscience.

Tony Blair, the first Prime Minister never to have known a war, turned out to be a warrior after all, to an extent that appalled his own party.

Cameron and Paterson might be up to the challenge of the most imaginative and compassionate response to the victims yet.

One can hope.

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