One senses there is an inevitability about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission coming on stream in Northern Ireland. What will make this work?

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A sizeable international body of opinion contends that all conflict resolution ultimately necessitates exposition of the ‘truth’ as part of a healing process.

What is not always realised is that the Peace Process is an iterative process which is still processing. The IRA ceasefire took place in 1994. That organisation didn’t ‘leave the stage’ until 2005. The proof of the IRA’s demise is the absence of militant activity at the the hands of that former body and the current unequivocal support of Sinn Fein for the PSNI and politics.

It is a truism to say that Unionists are not going to become nationalists and vice versa. President Mary McAleese once observed “there is a sediment of sectarianism in us all.” In so many areas of life here there is more than a sediment of sectarianism obtaining. A manifestation of this surfaced in the the Assembly last week on the issue of the building of the A5 linking Aughnacloy and the North West. The argument raged along sectarian lines in the wake of ministerial changes post election.

At times sectarianism and bigotry are more visceral and naked when it comes to issues like ‘ the past’ ‘education’ and ‘marching.’ Even the development of the Maze Prison site, potentially one of the most valuable tourist assets in the Western World, hit the rocks because of sectarianism. Having visited the gold mine that Alcatraz is for the economy of San Francisco one can only imagine the money earner the Maze would have been.

Myopia and foolish talk about a ‘Republican shrine’ took care of so much of the tourist potential of that gaol which was part of all of our pasts. Loyalist and IRA prisoners were housed there. There is a new generation who know nothing of that era just as millions of people visiting Alcatraz have no emotional attachment to Al Capone or the Birdman who were both infamous inmates in the island gaol.

In July 2005 a statement from Séana Walsh spelled out the IRA was moving into wind down.

The past had already been on the IRA /Sinn Fein agenda. Gerry Adams had moved to have the IRA establish ‘a special unit’ to deal with ‘the disappeared’ at the request of the families seeking ‘closure’ to the abduction and and killing of their loved ones. Flowing from this a Commission to address the ‘disappeared’ was officially established by the British and Irish governments with qualified success which has brought comfort to some families but unfortunately not to others, among them the family of Captain Robert Nairac who was seized and killed in South Armagh in the 70s. Despite the efforts of the the late Cardinal Tomás O Fiaich, who went to the IRA’s leadership, prompted by the late Cardinal Basil Hume who taught Nairac at Ampleforth, the soldier’s body didn’t surface.

Republicans would argue, on their terms, that their willingness to work with the Commission for the ‘disappeared’ was proof positive of their wanting to deal with the past. This thesis has been publicly complicated, it has to be said, by Gerry Adams’ ongoing refusal to publicly admit, unlike Martin Mc Guinness that he ‘ had a past.’ The decision of the First Minister to tell the Saville Inquiry that he was the IRA’s adjutant, ‘second in command’ in the IRA at the time of Bloody Sunday has cut him some slack ‘ in the protestant unionist community.’

Sinn Fein draw attention to other examples of the IRA’s good intentions in dealing with the past. A spokesperson cited the IRA’s apology for Bloody Friday in 1972. That statement read:
‘Sunday 21 July marks the 30th anniversary of an IRA operation in Belfast in 1972 which resulted in nine people being killed and many more injured. While it was not our intention to injure or kill non-combatants, the reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequence of our actions. It is therefore appropriate on the anniversary of this tragic event, that we address all of the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us. We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families.’

Gerry Adams has habitually argued the only effective way of dealing with the past would be found in a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission.’ Being hobbled by his own failure to date to talk of his past Mr Adams has repeatedly met with derision from Unionist politicians on any talk of a Truth Commission.

The shock disclosure that former senior IRA personnel had inserted themselves into the Smithwick Inquiry to give evidence about the killings of two senior police officers may turn out to be ‘a game changer’ in building credibility into the notion of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The purpose of the Smithwich Inquiry in Dublin is to inquire “into suggestions that members of An Garda Síochána or other employees of the State colluded in the fatal shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan on the 20th March, 1989.

The key to the involvement of IRA figures in the Smithwick Inquiry rests in the Weston Park talks and confirmed by the Irish Attorney General two years ago who stated that information given by potential witnesses “cannot be used in a future prosecution and any witnesses would be given immunity.”

What should not be underestimated about the voluntary move by former IRA members is, the ranks held by these people according to the Inquiry team’s lawyers. The statements of evidence from the IRA witnesses will be published for all to see on the Inquiry website at an appropriate time.

The question then arises where does all this go? Nowhere is the answer, if the following fails to materialise. A senior republican asked “why would a British soldier running an agent who killed, come forward and vice versa without protection from prosecution?”

Former Secretary of State John Reed spoke of Northern Ireland having “just come through a murky dirty squalid little war.” He knew what he was saying as did those of us listening, He meant paramilitaries and
state forces involved in killings. Therein hangs the future of any Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A ‘TRC’ established by the government and ‘run’ by the government is dead in the water.

There is every reason to believe a Truth Commission will come to pass but just as in the case of the Mitchell Talks, the Independent Decommissioning Body and the Independent Monitoring Commission a Truth Commission will have to be anchored of necessity in an international framework which necessitates governments and paramilitaries putting their cards on the table facing upwards, secure in the knowledge that all participants would be ‘protected’ or ‘immuned’ from prosecution.


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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

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