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Why the changed political battleground is now about gaining control of the past


James Brokenshire faces a difficult task ahead

James Brokenshire faces a difficult task ahead

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James Brokenshire faces a difficult task ahead

As Theresa Villiers leaves her post as Secretary of State, it is worth noting that her departing comments expressed optimism about overcoming final logjams so that a legacy process to deal with the past can finally proceed. Welcome though political progress is in Northern Ireland, her positive outlook should also, however, be considered in the light of two key and as yet unanswered questions: is there public appetite for such a process, and will it help ensure greater stability and a better future for Northern Ireland?

Of course, the response to both depends on what the public thinks "dealing with the past" means as well as how the mechanisms proposed will facilitate this.

But if the public mind is not strongly oriented to probably, or yes, on both counts then Northern Ireland has problems.

Villiers' acknowledgment that the viability of a legacy process will require "sufficient consensus" (a well-known phrase among civil servants throughout the peace process and better understood as "critical minimum") across the "whole of the community to enable us to go ahead" is obvious enough, but what are the key principles driving a legacy process around which such a consensus must coalesce?

And, indeed, in the absence of such a consensus, can a legacy process command public confidence and provide a foundation for a more confident, less anxious and less divided Northern Ireland?

Of course, the mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement will need to have the required latitude to tolerate differences of expectation, but, apart from Eames-Bradley (yet to be bettered as a coherent overview of potential problems and how to handle them), there has been no real engagement with wider society about how a legacy process will help Northern Ireland move away from the pain of its troubled past.

Sinn Fein's primary concern is clearly to further expose the brutality and illegality of actions carried out by the British State, and unionists will no doubt want Sinn Fein to provide truthful and detailed accounts of republican violence perpetrated throughout the conflict.

On that basis alone one can see that a legacy process is likely to be a highly contested affair and so become the new terrain of conflict.

It will also be disputed territory when it comes to questions about responsibility and integrity, with varying definitions of truth used and abused to support tactics of defence and attack.

The polarisation of communities and groups who see themselves as representative of those communities highlights the more glaring difficulty in finding and shaping consensus, but this distance could become even greater without some powerful centralising force to handle the disputes and friction that a legacy process will inevitably create.

The mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement, whatever their designers call them and whatever their remit, may individually have considerable merit, but there appears little means by which to ensure coherence or consistency of purpose across and between those mechanisms.

Without a critical centre of control and influence there is a real danger that these disparate structures will allow parties and individuals to selectively pick from each for self-serving and divisive political purposes.

Further, the absence of a collective narrative, which explains how society as a whole is being helped by a legacy process and which people can see is the case, increases the possibility of outcomes being used to antagonise and beat opponents.

This, along with dissatisfaction about confronting the past, increases the likelihood of retaliatory demands.

The problem could be manageable - if the public knew and accepted that short-term disadvantages are both inevitable and necessary for long-term social gain. But without that sense, pessimism and doubt sets in, reinforcing anticipations of failure and the hardened win/lose conflict politics that Northern Ireland needs to move away from.

One recommendation is for academic projects to document new historical accounts which may emerge from testimony and documentation.

This is undoubtedly useful (although likely to cast academics as sympathetic to unionism, or republicanism) if it illuminates unknown, or less-known, influences and consequences. However, academic projects, too, can use new material to sustain old ideological positions and so lend support to condemnation of one side or the other.

Though necessary to indicate change, historical revisionism is less likely to encourage creative thought or experimentation with regard to exploring how the hopes and aspirations of individuals have been crushed by the weight of conflict. Nor in all probability will it help provide the space where ownership of narratives and the importance of social responsibility can be examined and discussed without fear of selling-out to the other side. On this, ponder how interesting it might be not just to see all the documentation that Sinn Fein has of the many meetings its leaders had with government officials from the inception of the peace process in a book, but performed as a play, where the lessons of changed thinking through engagement can be applied to other contexts and situations.

But perhaps one measure to help evaluate if a successful legacy process has benefited society as a whole comes from assessing whether it has created conditions and opportunities for reconciliation (better and more tolerant relations), or reinforced attitudes and expectations of conflict.

Interestingly, however defined, reconciliation does not appear to register in the current logjams where the participants remain preoccupied with justice and truth recovery.

This may be because it is seen as largely irrelevant - even though it provides a reference point for thinking about the success or failure of the entire process.

However ambiguously conceived or understood, reconciliation at least provides a constructive viewpoint by which to consider the mechanisms of investigation overall.

Framed by this aspiration communities, parties, individuals and society just might have a better chance of viewing the past more through the need to create a better future.

Sinn Fein has produced much material on dealing with the past, putting forward suggestions on a "public coalition" along with a "common act of acknowledgement" on reconciliation, but unionists have overwhelmingly ignored the issue.

The loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, in its two papers about transforming the legacy of conflict, has done more for thinking about this than the other unionist parties combined, yet this contribution was basically ignored - presumably because of perceived associations with paramilitarism.

The PUP papers talk about reconciliation as a process of social conversation based on equality and integrity, rather than using it as part of some political blame game. In that sense they see the merit of process over detail and even talk about the common good.

An emphasis on process means that the end result is more important than the short-term establishment of fact, but for some facts are more important than process. Such obsession will almost certainly keep Northern Ireland shackled to accusations about truth and lying over the past.

All of this points towards difficulty when it comes to achieving the "sufficient consensus" Villiers thought necessary for a workable and beneficial legacy process, but on which there has been no public consultation.

If asked, most people would have little idea what value the investigative mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement are supposed to provide.

They would have even less of an idea about how the process envisaged will help Northern Ireland move on and put a line between the past and the future.

This is not a reflection of public apathy, but rather the reluctance of politicians to openly discuss the advantages of the process they are proposing and legislating for. Perhaps the short of it is they don't know how or whether it will work, and are fearful of the consequences.

Perhaps, too, they are unable to visualise a Northern Ireland that can deal with its past, because they are representative of the very divisions and polarisation that sustained that past.

James Brokenshire, the new Secretary of State, should be very concerned about such problems and vigilant to the potential they have to obstruct the emergence of a better future at practically every turn.

Whether he is up to that task and can see Northern Ireland though a new phase, where the political battleground is now about gaining control of the past, only time will tell.

  • Dr 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)

Belfast Telegraph