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Can we really leave the past just to the historians?

Early in the New Year Secretary of State Owen Paterson will return to the issue of the past — that question of what to do and what not to do.

And maybe there was a hint of his thinking in a lecture he gave last month when he suggested that “historians rather than lawyers” might be best placed to interpret the events of a decades-long conflict and produce “an authoritative history” of the period.

There are big decisions to be made, both in terms of individual cases — such as the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane — and the bigger question of how to turn the page from that bloody past into the |present.

And how much will there be to |interpret?

All sides to this conflict have secrets in hidden corners — important detail in terms of context and understanding that might never be shared.

It will mean a history with missing pages and chapters. “With historians you will have the inevitable conflicting interpretations of events,” says Professor Kieran McEvoy from the School of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s University.

“The key is to create a structure that maximises the buy-in from as many relevant participants as |possible — in particular state agencies, republican and loyalist paramilitaries, governments and politicians,” he adds.

The line I am hearing is that both Owen Paterson and David Cameron understand that “doing nothing is not an option”.

But what is the something they are prepared to do — both to answer the questions on the Finucane murder and the many other questions that relate to hundreds of other killings?

Councillor Jim McVeigh — the last IRA jail leader in the Maze and now leader of the Sinn Fein group on Belfast City Council — completed a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Criminal Justice.

His dissertation was on the question of an Irish Truth Commission, in which he examined international and local processes.

In response to this newspaper’s queries about the idea of historians writing the narrative of our conflict, he replies: “It wouldn’t be enough.”

“I think any truth recovery process has to do a number of things,” he continues.

“It has to look at the causes of the conflict — look at the consequences.

“Many of the families, on all sides, want to find out the truth. There’s an important storytelling aspect. It’s very important to families and communities that their stories are told.”

In this debate about the past and how to deal with it, the Northern Ireland Office often talks of the need for consensus on a way forward, but it is difficult to imagine this will be found locally.

And so, it seems, there is a clear need for an international architect to design the process — a process that in Professor McEvoy’s words “maximises the buy-in”.

Last month, the Secretary of State made clear that whatever happens cannot be “a one-sided exercise”.

But Jim McVeigh believes the British Government has most to fear.

“Because any proper investigation will find the British Government and its forces were involved in state murder,” he says.

“People know, for the most part, what the IRA did, although they may have specific questions,” he added.

There are many specific questions for the many sides to this conflict — but still no agreed process and no answers.

By the New Year we should at least have some better idea about what is possible and what is not.

Belfast Telegraph