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Talking about the past as the present erupts on the streets

The irony will not have been lost on the people who gathered in that Belfast room on Monday night. A veritable Who's Who of the truth and reconciliation process were meeting for a discussion on ways forward.

It was, if such a description can be applied, a stellar line-up of stakeholders in the business of building the peace, brought together by Kate Turner's remarkable Healing Through Remembering group.

The current chief constable, Matt Baggott, was there as was his predecessor, Sir Hugh Orde. Sinn Fein's 'legacy' spokesman, Mitchel McLaughlin, was on the panel, as was UDA leader Jackie McDonald. Former UVF lifer Alistair Little spoke from the floor, as did the man who read the IRA endgame statement in 2005, Seanna Walsh. In the audience were former paramilitaries, leaders of victims' groups and even an Eames and a Bradley.

The talk was passionate, informed and, of course, without consensus, but more of that in a minute.

For as we talked of peace-building, across town a hardcore UVF mob in balaclavas was attacking the nationalist Short Strand, armed with petrol-bombs and baseball bats.

The message, in all its inarticulate violence, was clear. A growing section of the working-class loyalist community is feeling shut out, pressurised by ongoing probes from the Historical Enquiries Team on one side and under-represented by our political classes on the other.

As the community cowered under this assault, it would have been fitting to ask this question of our debaters across town. If some of the loyalist paramilitary leaders in the room, now committed to the 'process', could not influence events in the Short Strand, what hope the police, politicians and the rest of us?

These and other issues were ringing around my head on Monday night while pondering the two events. There were, in the words of the song, more questions than answers at the Healing Through Remembering event.

Even Kate herself pointed out that it always felt like we are at the beginning of the reconciliation process when, in actual fact, this stuff has been going on for decades. It sometimes feels like wading through treacle.

There was talk from victims' groups of 'fatigue' as promises of progress were frequently dashed. There were fundamental disagreements on how a truth process might work. Should it be about corporate or individual responsibility? Should there be an amnesty for those taking part?

On the former, I couldn't see how not including individual actions and events could ever help us move on, but the room was also reminded by former Red Hand Commando William 'Plum' Smith that "there won't be a long queue of ex-combatants" ready to take part.

Amnesty exercised the minds greatly. Hugh Orde swept it off the table with an "it's not going to happen", but others thought there were ways around it without using the dreaded 'A' word.

As well as the physical presence of the authors, the ghost of the Eames/Bradley report frequently rattled its chains. Mitchel indicated that Sinn Fein was still concerned about the impartiality of any legacy commission and insisted the British Government had to be ready to be there with open books. He was reminded that he had omitted the Irish government from his extensive list of those he wanted to give evidence.

But, in truth, it did feel like a son of Eames/Bradley, or even a partially revived original, was needed to avoid what Matt Baggott reminded us was the potential for 50 years and more of different and hugely costly inquiries into the past. Robin Eames warned us, though, that anyone who thought any process could bring "closure" was bound to be disappointed.

I would hazard a guess that there was one area of broad agreement on Monday night.

If we had known the UVF were on the rampage as we spoke, it would perhaps have been expressed even more urgently.

Doing nothing to try to turn the pages on our past is simply not an option.