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?

5 thoughts on “Does the truth have to be bought? – asks Brian Rowan

  1. After doing an interview with the BBC’s The View, which is due to be aired tonight (Thursday 12 December) on the issue of limited immunity for Troubles cases I got to thinking about how this could maybe work out for the victims. I was asked to do this interview as an opposite end of the spectrum ‘talking head’ victim who sees merit in immunity as opposed to the other view that amnesty and its ilk is a dirty word. I knew that I would only get about thirty seconds to come off with a few good sound bites and before I see it, I am not sure if thirty seconds does this issue justice.

    The prospect of limited immunity may be anathema to many people in this place. This would include victims, media, politicians and any other punter who likes to add his tuppence worth to the Haass talks.

    However, there are many other people, like myself, who could see a use for it. We may not know what exactly it would look like but it is an option that needs talked out. That is one of the problems here. There are too many knee jerkers and not enough talkers and thinkers.

    I feel that it should be down to individuals and families to decide what type of ‘justice’ that they seek to pursue. If you want to seek criminal justice – fine. If it is restorative justice – ok. If it is no justice – then that’s fine too. And if it’s truth through immunity, then that is an option that should be open too. I think that there should be as many options on the table as possible.

    What we do need to do when Haass announces Eames Bradley Redux is to explain to victims what exactly such options mean. There needs to be mediation, facilitation and
    education about the possible consequences and repercussions of these processes. Getting the truth may not always bring the relief that one expects. People need to be talked through the possibilities that they may be done more harm. The positives and negatives of truth need to be examined. This needs to be done in a way that respects and gives dignity to the victim.

    People should not be given false hope and expectation. Those who they need truth from may not be willing to give it. They should not expect remorse. They should not expect to
    receive full truths because no such thing exists. They may not even like a truth they receive. Their own beliefs about what happened may be shattered. They may find it hard to integrate what they hear. They will need help with this. They should not be
    handed a letter and told “Here is your truth, go away now and get on with it”.

    I believe that if an individual or a family chooses to go down the route of immunity, then these people should be offered therapeutic interventions before, during and after the process. The possibility of re-traumatisation is very real when digging up the past. That is
    not to say that real relief and growth can occur when facing our past.

    There is a need for real honesty from our politicians who are deciding at this very minute what to do with all of those people who want and need truth and justice. The victims
    should be at the centre of this. But they should not dictate the outcome for other victims. Individual preferences should be paramount. There should be a range of pragmatic mechanisms in place to facilitate these preferences. Everyone may not get what they want but if positivity and closure can be gained for some then then I think it will be worth it.

    The question was put above ‘Does the truth have to be bought?’. I think it needs to be. I also think it should be done with a cautious, rational approach. ‘Buyer Beware’ should be the theme. Know what you are buying. Know what you are giving in exchange. Know that there are no returns. Know that your rights will be affected. The key to this process is knowledge and we as a society need to be educated on how to cope with it.

    • Paul – a detailed, informed, thoughtful contribution to the discussion. These are big moments of decision that will need further exploration and explanation beyond the Haass process. All politicians involved should read you post. Barney

      • Thanks Barney. As I suspected after viewing The View last night, my nuanced position would not be made as clear as I had liked. I am not blaming the editing or the producers and journalists but that is one of the problems with television as a medium for explaining such complex issues. It seemed as if I was in opposition to the idea of limited immunity but in reality I am supportive of the notion if that choice is made. What I was pointing out was the risks involved, the risk of harm and re-traumatisation. That has to be weighed against the positive benefits of what may come. It’s going be a long process but I am up for it and I hope that many others are too.

        • Paul – I sent the link to your comments to a number of those involved in the Haass Talks. I understand your argument – know exactly what you are saying about the many layers to this. It needs to be thought through by all concerned. Keep in touch. This is a good place for debate.

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