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Past proof future of Northern Ireland can not be left to adults


Loyalist murals in Belfast

Loyalist murals in Belfast

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The parties in talks

The parties in talks


Loyalist murals in Belfast

Two not completely unrelated documents have entered the public realm recently. One received widespread coverage and the other next to none.

The first is the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill 2015 and the second is Truth Recovery: Revisited, commissioned by loyalist ex-prisoner group EPIC and launched at Farset a few weeks ago.

What possible relationship is worth contemplating with regard to these two texts? The answer to this is that, if there is a belief that the mechanisms for dealing with the past in the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill (SHA) are going to work, there is little basis for optimism for this going on what Truth Recovery: Revisited (TRR) tells us.

Here, any potential benefits that might be gleaned from private testimony about the past are swallowed up and overwhelmed by the consistent expression of fears and anxieties about what engagement with a "truth process" is likely to do.

The reason for this comes from an overwhelming picture of loyalist disillusionment with the way politics works, with loyalists seeing themselves as increasingly isolated from political decisions and policies and so detached from initiatives, as in this case, to do with legacy.

Because of this the problem of truth recovery and how loyalists see it is inextricably linked with the "post-conflict" political landscape and the inability of the political parties to connect at a deep social level with those most expected to participate in mechanisms designed to "deal with the past".

As in an earlier document on truth recovery in 2004, impressions persist that former loyalist paramilitaries will be used as scapegoats in any imagined truth process and that this will only destabilise loyalist communities further, bringing to the fore a new generation of militant individuals especially threatening to peace.

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Going further, the TRR document highlights how republicans are believed to be getting most of the gains from peace while loyalists "are merely bystanders watching many processes taking place" with "nothing valid, innovative or constructive to bring to discussions".

Notably, the report lacks substance on how to confront and reverse the pessimistic outlook, but the admission that loyalists see themselves as little more than bystanders to a political system making decisions on their behalf without any interest in the problems they face is serious enough and indicates a dangerous disconnect between the political and the social.

The implications of this disconnect may not be of great interest to mainstream society in Northern Ireland, but its existence means that dealing with the past as envisaged by the SHA is almost certainly doomed unless this distance can be closed.

The starting-point for this might be to consider what the SHA is designed to do and then to see if there is any discernible pick-up in the public mind about whether this is achievable or not.

Winning the argument for its importance also depends on persuasively communicating what legacy mechanisms mean and don't mean and then responding with sensitivity and deliberation to concerns about perceived consequences.

By absorbing doubters into a wider consultation process, it is more likely that they will come to sympathetically and even supportively appreciate the value and intent of confronting legacy issues through formal mechanisms, but outside of such engagement they almost certainly will not.

The SHA prioritises key mechanisms (Historical Investigations Unit, Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and an Oral History Archive) but offers little detail about how those mechanisms will work both independently and inter-dependently to effectively address and overcome the legacy of conflict.

On this, most loyalists I have spoken to believe that, if entered into, this process will not help bring the pain and suffering of the past to a close, but rather will exacerbate and intensify it.

They further stress that, given the somewhat ambiguous nature of the SHA as a text and the lack of consultation at social/communal levels about its merits, one can only conclude there is no real desire by the two governments to try and comprehensively deal with the past as implied, and that the Bill is, therefore, little more than formal recognition of a design which discourages participation rather than encourages it.

As far as they can see, the mechanisms of the Bill are there to close the past after five years, and so end the claims of victims' groups and others that the opposing community should take responsibility for the misery that resulted from conflict. So, the argument goes, once the five years is up, the past is effectively consigned to the past.

This might have some hint of credibility if politicians in Northern Ireland sought to build a consensus about the future rather than maintain disputes about the past. But this would require ending the predictable and tiresome routine of just adopting oppositional positions to keep the politics of fear alive.

One thing for sure, though, is that all the time the past continues to dominate political and everyday life there can be no imagined future to replace it. Where is the debate about what kind of future Northern Ireland wants and needs beyond ending the Union or not?

Logically, one would assume, without offering a positive future vision the past will inform that future, making it impossible to escape from and condemning the next generation to see the world through the grievance perspectives of the Troubles.

Because of this perhaps one of the key questions to be asked about the SHA is will it help to create a better future? Or is it more about trying to create a better past (although what that would look like really does take a leap of the imagination)?

One can understand why the function and remit of the mechanisms might want to remain ambiguous at this initial stage of formulation, but on the basics (leaving aside potential tensions that arise in giving testimony for moral rather than legal reasons), such as what reconciliation might mean and how it can be experienced, the text is empty.

And the danger with this emptiness is that in the current climate it will soon be filled with fears and conspiracy theories about entrapment and demands for justice which quickly undermine any potential value.

Further, since most perpetrators would also see themselves as victims, the legacy of conflict is mixed with confusing notions of social and legal justice models which, on the face of it, look almost impossible to separate. Such problems further highlight the need to enter into addressing the past from a positive and constructive vision of the future.

Responding practically and imaginatively to these difficulties is not impossible if conducted though a range of cross-community groups and bodies not of the political system, but which can feed into it in ways that navigate the tortuous problem of the past more creatively by working outside of the predictable restraints of political argument.

Those groups and bodies would enable participants like loyalists to gain some purchase on debates through deeper involvement in the issues and so buy-in to the importance of thinking about the past and the future more reflectively and less divisively.

But there is one obvious deficiency here which must be corrected if the past is to gradually disappear from view without causing more pain and so ensuring its continuing presence. And that is children must be included in any such groups and bodies for they are the future and they need to be asked about what they would do in relation to emerging and continuing problems.

To just leave this to adults, as the past shows, would be a big mistake.

  • Graham Spencer is Reader in Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth and the author of The State Of Loyalism In Northern Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan)

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