Belfast Telegraph

We should close Northern Ireland Troubles files and leave the past where it belongs, in the past

There is anger, pain and grief in all sections of society affected by the Troubles, but endless inquiries aren't the answer, says Chris Ryder

Hardly a day goes by without one or other group calling for inquests, a public inquiry, a new investigation, or justice arising from events during the Troubles. There is a huge and swelling residue of loss, anger, grief and hurt on all sides, but especially among the relatives of the 3,600 murder victims and the survivors of the estimated 500,000 crimes which were committed during the 30 years of conflict since 1968, very many of which remain unsolved.

But the merits of virtually re-running the tragedies of the Troubles by formal investigative, or judicial, means must be questioned on several fundamental counts:

Is it in the wider public interest to pick so deeply at the scabs of our violent history that we prevent them from ever healing?

Is the vast cost in financial and human terms truly worth it, in that any process will inevitably stretch indefinitely into the future, prejudicing our fragile peace process, denying many of the victims and survivors - the real casualties of our conflict - any meaningful remedy?

As any truth process will inevitably be a selective one, how can it satisfy all the outstanding issues, with the added danger that only those who have campaigned the most vigorously will have their concerns assuaged? Many survivors nurse their grief and grievances in private solitude.

For fundamentally differing reasons, the various parties to what has become known as the "legacy" issue have adopted such rigid and unyielding standpoints that many people believe the real objective is to indefinitely smother any rigorous investigative process until those with long-lingering concerns either lose interest, or themselves pass away.

Another factor in the deadlock is concern to protect reputations, or revise the historical narrative, for partisan ends. Against this background, it is necessary to outline the standpoints and attitudes of the main participants to understand the deadlock.

The Cost of the Troubles academic study attributes most of the fatalities - 59% - to the various republican groups, overwhelmingly the Provisional IRA. But, nearly two decades into the "peace process", they have maintained a rigid omerta, refusing to reveal, or elaborate in anything but obscure, or general terms, about what they did and why.

Indeed, Gerry Adams, who was a very public proponent of the republican campaign, consistently insists he was never even in the IRA.

His confrere, Martin McGuinness, has adopted a more subtle standpoint: he will confess all only when a comprehensive "truth recovery" process is in place, an unlikely prospect given the ongoing deadlock. Memoirs by former activists have revealed sometimes contradictory insights, but the bigger picture remains wilfully opaque.

The study estimates that 28% of victims were killed by loyalist paramilitaries, whose ongoing activities are dominated by drug-trafficking and organised crime using patriotism as a mask for rampant criminality.

Here, too, there is a marked reluctance to reveal anything of the rationale for the many atrocities attributed to them, but some former members have decided to tell all in return for immunity from prosecution by testifying against their former comrades in crime.

These individuals, along with various official reports, have revealed scandalous links to and actual collusion with rogue members of the security forces, helping them to target victims and even escape detection. Such proven links have combined to foster a wider sense of injustice and undermine the very integrity of the police and Army charged with protecting the wider community.

While the vast majority of police officers and soldiers operated with brave and selfless commitment (302 RUC and 763 soldiers died), 11% of all fatalities were caused by the security forces, frequently in controversial circumstances, fuelling allegations of a tacit "shoot-to-kill" policy encouraged by nods and winks from on high that those concerned would be protected from prosecution.

Against this background, it was inevitable that any post-peace efforts to resolve the enduring inheritance of the violent years would become a major political issue, primarily for both the sovereign Irish and British Governments, the most influential partners in the agreements that underpinned the end of the conflict. For their own reasons, both have been presented with sensitive questions they would rather not answer publicly.

Although the Irish Government was not a direct party to the conflict, it was dragged into the collateral machinations and, from time to time, presented with legal and political dilemmas overspilling the border.

It caused much British frustration by refusing to extradite suspects north because their claim to have committed "political" offences was originally upheld by the Irish courts.

There were also a number of outrages in Dublin, as well as numerous cross-border incidents, which remain mysteries, because they may reveal embarrassing failings. The Smithwick Tribunal (€15m) into the 1989 murder of two senior RUC officers as they crossed the border, reinforced allegations that cross-border security and co-operation was far from ideal for many years.

This sobering outcome for the Irish Government was equivalent, for the British Government, to the Saville report (cost £195m over 12 years) into the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers were held responsible for the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians.

But any hopes that the British Government had that the thoroughness and cost of the investigation would calm calls for similarly exhaustive processes have been dashed. Instead, they have been forced to pour many more millions of pounds into historical investigations, with more being demanded, triggering a process which has been haunted by general dissatisfaction on the part of the victims and survivors exacerbated by the unwillingness of many former police officers and soldiers to assist.

Although many instances of unlawful conduct by members of the security forces were conclusively established, the vast majority of former soldiers and police officers now deeply resent the perception that the primary focus of post-peace investigation is overwhelmingly centred on their conduct in entirely trying and dangerous circumstances.

There is particular resentment that the soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday are being tracked down and interviewed as part of a criminal investigation. As a result, a coalition of former soldiers who were injured in terrorist incidents have themselves made complaints to the police in Northern Ireland seeking to have equally vigorous investigations to bring their attackers to justice.

Retired police officers, too, have voluntarily funded legal proceedings to clear the RUC of wrongdoing as a result of damning reports from the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman.

The DUP, whose leader, Arlene Foster, the daughter of a former police officer who survived a murder bid at the family home, has vetoed the £10m requested by the Lord Chief Justice, because she fears outstanding legacy inquests will further besmirch the reputation of the police and Army.

For its part, Sinn Fein is frustrated that the British Government clings to the spurious need to protect national security to avoid having to disclose anything about the secret war involving undercover units and informers, often with collusion between security forces and loyalist terrorists.

At present, the two governments and the Stormont parties are in lengthy negotiations to traverse this tangled web. Various approaches to alleviate the distress of victims and survivors have been rejected, but despite the overall economic challenges, there is the still the prospect of endless inquiries, stretching years ahead at a cost of millions.

There are enduring open wounds on all sides, but is preventing them healing the most appropriate way ahead? Wouldn't it be better to close all the files, leave their analysis to history and give the money saved to victims and survivors now to provide them with the specialised assistance many badly need?

  • Chris Ryder is author of The RUC 1922-2000: A Force Under Fire (Arrow)

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph