Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: Sinn Fein must address human rights abuses carried out by IRA

Any process of dealing with the past must deal with terrorist groups as well as the security forces, argues Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt

Respect. Equality. Human rights. Why on Earth would a unionist not want to offer these qualities to others as well as demanding them for ourselves?

I am sure some reading this are reacting negatively. How dare you talk of equality given your party's record over the 51 years you ran Northern Ireland! Frankly, I do not think any government can go five months without making mistakes, never mind 50 years, but nothing justifies terrorism in my eyes.

I hope any process for dealing with the past looks closely at the record of all involved down the years because it is my unshakeable belief that no one needed to die to get where we are today and if people are to support mechanisms designed to maximise the delivery of truth, justice and acknowledgement, that will be a particular challenge for Sinn Fein.

Recently Gerry Adams said that he saw no point in pursuing the killers of Tom Oliver, a farmer from Co Louth who was abducted, tortured and then murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1991.

Apparently the IRA thought he was an informer and took upon themselves the authority of judge, jury, torturer and executioner.

Is there a more grievous way to abuse a person's human rights? The IRA ignored Mr Oliver's right to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty by a court of law; conveniently overlooked his right to legal representation and a fair trial; abused his right to freedom from torture; and took away the ultimate right, to life. And Tom Oliver is no exception to the IRA's rules.

How many times would the Sinn Fein president have to acknowledge that Irish republicans committed the most shocking assaults on human rights during his time as a republican leader?

And not just the way they decided Mr Oliver was an informer who needed to endure the most horrific death imaginable - no doubt "pour encourager les autres", or "to encourage the others", in the same way PIRA used tarring and feathering, and so-called "punishment beatings" as means of social control within its own communities and to hell with the human rights of the victims - the movement comes first.

In saying what he said about the killers of Tom Oliver, Gerry Adams promotes the concept of an enhanced hierarchy of investigations.

We already have such a hierarchy, as some victims receive public inquiries, while others get nothing now that the Historical Enquiries Team has been wrapped up and no comprehensive replacement agreed.

The Sinn Fein president's opinion that jailing the Tom Oliver murderers would be "totally and absolutely counterproductive" widens that hierarchy, rather than offering equality of investigation for all.

Republicans offer respect to the memory of their dead, yet can be so disrespectful of the United Kingdom's military heritage that they can explode a no-warning bomb at a cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and to this day rub salt into the grievous, toxic legacy of that terrorism by refusing to offer an apology.

In 2011 Queen Elizabeth said "… with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all" in a speech of grace and reconciliation in Dublin.

The previous year Prime Minister David Cameron told the world that the killings by the paratroopers on Bloody Sunday were "unjustified and unjustifiable".

I was in Guildhall Square to witness the unprecedented and remarkable applause that greeted his words.

I see no equally outstanding remarks from Sinn Fein regarding the IRA's human rights abuses.

You may point out my failure to acknowledge the gestures made by the late Martin McGuinness - shaking hands with the Queen, donning a white tie and tails for a State banquet honouring President Michael D Higgins' visit to England.

But these were political gestures, not references to regret for past actions. His pride in the IRA he helped command, lead and shape into the most ruthless terrorist organisation of its day was hermetically sealed from the political Martin McGuinness.

The human rights abuses of the past were what? Necessary? I shall never buy into the narrative that unionism left republicans with no choice. To pick up a gun is to make a choice. To detonate a bomb is a choice and to my mind, a terrible one, with a toxic legacy we still have to deal with.

There is no point yearning for a better past, but to deny responsibility for your part in the enduring issues is to undermine the prospects of building a better future, a future that must offer respect, equality and rights to all.

If we all go away and come back in 20 years, there will still be unionists and loyalists, republicans and nationalists living in this small corner of the world.

We need to find a way to at least muddle along together and the starting point must be to protect the human rights of all; more than that, we must ensure everyone understands their human rights are protected, and above that again we must ensure people realise our politicians want, joyously and determinedly, to protect those human rights.

If we are ever going to deal effectively with our past it must not be through a structure that continues to place the spotlight exclusively on the British State and its agents, but fearlessly and doggedly exposes human rights abuses by all the terror groups who appear so keen to re-image themselves as if they had no choice but to do what they did.

I believe in the expression "just because you have a past does not mean you cannot have a future", but that does not mean you can rewrite your past and airbrush out abuse.

That includes members of the security services who stepped outside the law. But bear in mind, people like Gerry Adams knew what they were doing.

He has often accused the British authorities of exploiting IRA "mistakes"; in 1986 he wrote: "… when Oglaigh na hEireann killed or injured civilians the British were always … cynically prepared to exploit these mistakes or to create the conditions in which they might occur".

This is, of course, nonsense, a false logic, but offers an insight into how he was prepared to create the conditions that might provoke the State and its agents to bend or break the rules. There appear to be no lengths republicans will not go to, to try to deflect attention from the IRA's long and shameful record of human rights abuses.

If the Northern Ireland Executive is ever reformed, and I hope it is, those who say there can be no return to the status quo are right: there cannot be. The future must offer respect, equality and the protection of human rights for all.

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