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Truly the past is a foreign country, explore it with care

What is it we want out of an exploration and excavation of the past? Is it continuing investigations by the type of units recently suggested by former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan and detailed a few years back in the Eames/Bradley report? Or is it something else?

Then there is another question: what will investigations achieve - probes into the killings of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s?

Yes, in a small number of cases, the end result might be jail for those who placed bombs, or pulled triggers. But in most cases that won't happen.

And what are we saying to the thousands who were injured, if the investigative line is drawn at killings? Are we creating another hierarchy, or league table, of victims?

It takes us back to the opening thought. What do we want out of any examination of the past? Investigations could produce a result for some, but not for the many touched by a decades-long conflict.

And so that demands we think outside the box - and think differently. That is if we really want the answers, the information and some better understanding of what the many 'wars' were all about.

Investigations stand in the way of that type of explanation. And the dirty word 'amnesty' is what will open the door.

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Many baulk at the very suggestion, as if it is something new. Yet, in one form or another, it is what delivered decommissioning, or putting arms beyond use, opened the door to information on the hidden bodies of the Disappeared and there are those who point to the early prisoner-releases as another form of amnesty.

If you want republicans and loyalists to step forward, then some new thinking is required. Investigations push them further away from the type of process in which information could be delivered.

And we need to understand that the past is not just about individuals, but is also about corporate/collective decisions and orders - republican, loyalist, security forces, intelligence services and political/government.

So if we want to know, not just what happened, but why it happened, then we need the keys that will open those doors.

Investigations mean more locks are applied. Information will continue to be hidden away and the vast majority of people looking for answers won't get them.

We can understand the argument for investigations; understand people who see justice in terms of court and jail for those who pulled triggers and placed bombs. But how realistic is that now?

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) is going to continue its work - probably until the end of 2013. And there is a view that there will be no serious thinking given to a truth, or information-recovery, process until after then.

Investigations will only scratch the surface of what happened. The past is not just about who pulled a trigger, or who placed a bomb. It is about the orders and the thinking behind those actions.

Again, not just what happened, but why? It is not about goodies and baddies; not just about republicans and loyalists, but about those in politics, security and intelligence who dabbled in the dark arts of war.

It is about achieving the best information and explanation behind what happened and about trying to ensure it doesn't happen again. And you don't achieve that by investigation and throwing a few people in jail.

We also need to think about what happens when the work of the HET is complete. Many of the unanswered questions of the past decades will still be sitting there waiting for a response; for the information and explanation that could make a difference.

So, this needs a bright idea, some big thinking, something new. It needs a process that can answer many questions and not just a few.

And out there, in our world of politics, there are those who don't even want to think about that. Why? Because of the ugly truths that could emerge.

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