Does the truth have to be bought? – asks Brian Rowan


Dr Richard Haass

Dr Richard Haass


The question above was asked this week by Alan McBride -a member of the Human Rights Commission who works at the Wave Trauma Centre.

Often when we as journalists write or talk about him it is in the context of the Shankill bomb – that day on the conflict calendar that dates back to October 1993 when his wife and father-in-law along with others became part of that long list of lost lives.

This week he just happened to be in the Stormont Hotel as the Haass Talks – now situated there – entered the critical negotiation phase and as ‘limited immunity’ became part of the complicated word play in the commentary around these discussions.

“First of all you need some understanding of what is meant by limited immunity – and how that differs from amnesty,” McBride commented.

“But whatever happens with regards to the past [it] has to be victim centred and it would be up to the families how they go forward in the absence of truth and justice,” he continued.

It was then he asked that big question: “Does the truth have to be bought by limited immunity, amnesty or whatever?”

The answer is yes, and then the next question is how much more ‘truth’ or additional information would such an approach buy?

Within the tight timeframe of the current negotiations, there won’t be an answer.

So, if there is to be some scoping of that question it will be beyond this negotiation phase and not something that Dr Richard Haass and Dr Meghan O’Sullivan will be able to quantify at this time.

In bringing forward their own language and thinking, they might be able to draw a road map of places and points still to explore – this being one of them.

It is the absent context in this debate and dialogue – what was missing when Attorney General John Larkin raised the idea of an end to conflict-era investigations.

Non-prosecution cannot be a free gift. Its value has to be what it can buy in terms of answers, information, explanation and what others will call ‘truth’.

Larkin’s intervention demands mature consideration – not political kneejerk.

This can’t be about point scoring - can’t be about using the past and victims as some plaything; can’t be about trying to ‘win’.

For some in the political sphere – and not just unionists – the past is about getting Adams and McGuinness.

In any proper examination of what happened here there will, of course, be questions for them – but not just them.

I wonder if any of the senior unionist politicians who sat in halls with loyalist leaders discussing the summer marching crisis would ever think of naming any of them publicly, would think of asking for investigations not just into their roles as UVF or UDA leaders, but their use by the various intelligence services or branches?

Ask about how lines were crossed, how they became blurred and how the puppets and strings became a tangled mess?

The ‘wars’ are not just about what republicans did, not just about what the different State agencies got up to, not just about the loyalists, not just about those who went to jail - but about something much wider and complex.

It is not just about what happened, but why it happened – and the process on the past needs to examine all of that, needs to think about how maximum information is achieved and how the different truths are logged in a story-telling process that not just looks back but looks forward.

The most important learning from a past that cannot be undone is that it should never be repeated.


Dr Richard Haass pictured with Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan

Dr Richard Haass pictured with Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan


Haass and O’Sullivan can help with those next steps, but someone else has to take them, and it is not just about the dozen or so politicians in the room with the US team.

The people – whatever that term means – have to decide where they want to go.

If it is about taking measured steps away from the past, then that question asked by Alan McBride has to be answered.

Will immunity, or amnesty or whatever provide more of the answers, more of the information – some greater explanation and context?

That will be something to consider beyond this phase of negotiations on flags, parades and the past.

The Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott is right when he rules out an “all singing and all dancing” deal by Christmas, but others involved in these talks are also right to ask for something ambitious from this dialogue.

This is perhaps the best that Haass and O’Sullivan can do – propose the deal, identify its building blocks and see what others can make  out of the different ideas and thinking.

The past cannot – should not – be reduced to some parade of shame. There are too many who would escape the walk.

Peace-building – what this phase of the process is meant to be about – asks for leadership and, in this week of remembering, Haass identified that in Mandela.

On his twitter account, he wrote: “What made Mandela unique was [his] spirit of reconciliation and commitment to genuine democracy – not power.”

So, those focused on the past need to think what it is they want.

Are they still trying to ‘win’ or do they want to make things better in the here and now?

Is it peace they want or is it victory?


About Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist-of-the-Year awards. He was BBC security editor in Belfast and now contributes regularly to the Belfast Telegraph and UTV. Rowan has reported on the major pre-ceasefire and then peace process events. He is the author of four books.