Those who were shouting for the Sinn Fein leadership to be heard on the 40th anniversary of Bloody Friday were really asking for something much more specific.
If all they wanted were words from the republican leadership, then they could have found them in the commentary of Declan Kearney.
There was no need for a dictionary to understand what he was saying.
In an interview with me for the Belfast Telegraph the Sinn Fein National Chairman described Bloody Friday – that day of bombing carnage across Belfast – as “unjustifiable”.
That means indefensible, incapable of being justified or explained, something that Kearney said “shouldn’t have happened”.
“I think there is no republican who would associate him or herself to the view that Bloody Friday should have happened.
“Bloody Friday shouldn’t have happened,” he repeated.
Into his commentary, he coloured in the context of that period – not just Bloody Friday, but Bloody Sunday and the many other Bloody Days that contributed to the highest death toll in any year of the conflict.
That period, he said, should “serve as a stark reminder and monument to this generation of what we can never go back to experiencing again”.
“So Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday and all of those events do have a context,” Declan Kearney continued.
“They do have a context of their time – a war which had just begun to break out and erupt on the streets of the north and with that came the carnage that that type of war brought,” he said.
The IRA bombing blitz that was Bloody Friday took nine lives and left well over 100 injured.
When we listen to those families and people who were touched by the cold and brutal hand and the orders and actions of that day, we understand how pathetic and trite is that comment that suggests we draw a line.
There is nothing so simple, and nor should there be; no such easy escape from those decades of war – not for the IRA and not for anyone else.
Kearney was absolutely right when he said the past “can never be about one event, or one individual or one incident”.
“We came through a collective experience,” he said.
There were those who chose to ignore his interview – those in politics and the media who were not really asking for Sinn Fein to be heard, but rather for the party President Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to present themselves for interview.
Declan Kearney was seven on Bloody Friday, while Adams and McGuinness were old enough and important enough to have been part of secret IRA talks with the British Government just a few weeks earlier.
So, what was being demanded was an explanation from them.
There would have been questions about who gave the orders on Bloody Friday, who sent the ‘volunteers’ out with the bombs and who would answer for the war crimes of that day.
While those are perfectly reasonable questions the answers are never going to be given in any interview that focuses on one event or one individual or any one day of a violent conflict that was spread out over several decades.
We are also watching a tit-for-tat battle open up over investigations; the argument being that if soldiers are to be probed for their actions on Bloody Sunday, then so too should republicans over Bloody Friday.
It is hard to argue against that argument except to say that this far into a peace process police investigations are not the way to deal with the past; not the way to achieve the information and explanation that is being sought.
We need to ask ourselves, do we want to fill the jails again…
Fill them with republicans, loyalists, police officers, soldiers, with those who worked in Special Branch and the Security Service MI5, with the agents and handlers and managers and policy makers in that intelligence world, with politicians, officials and many others.
If that is what we want, then let us have it all.
Open up all the files, put everyone else under the same microscope as Adams and McGuinness, and examine every day in the same way that the bloody headline days are scrutinised.
How many of those bloody days will have the fingerprints of the UVF’s most senior leader on them – in terms of orders given?
Let us find out was he a paid agent of the Special Branch, what he was paid for and by whom, and was he being paid when he sat in rooms deciding on life or death?
Let us also hear what the handlers and their managers have to say.
If there are to be investigations then let the police pull them all in, including the police.
This conflict was not just about the republican and loyalist “terrorists”.
There were others who did not wear masks or balaclavas, but who presided over killing; who were part and parcel of what happened and players in the dirty war games.
They are people who are not scrutinised in the same way as Adams and McGuinness and that senior UVF leader.
The past is being used as a political play thing – used by all sides when it suits, and that needs to stop.
So, what could happen in terms of another approach?
- The First and Deputy First Minister could call in a team of facilitators headed by a prominent international figure;
- That team to meet with designated representatives of all sides – republican, loyalist, security/intelligence, political parties/ governments, churches/media and others;
- These meetings should establish levels of co-operation in any information gathering process, the possible mechanisms for questions and answers, recommend whether the process should be private/public, make recommendations on amnesty/non-prosecution based on levels of co-operation relating to information;
- International team should design process including facility for story-telling and report to Robinson/McGuinness;
- They decide final approach taking decisions out of the hands of the British/Irish Governments. It means the process is internationally designed but then jointly endorsed at the highest levels of local politics.
The former Methodist President Harold Good understands the importance of doing something sooner rather than later:
“To wait another 40 years, by which time even the most recent victims are likely to have departed this life, taking their pain with them, must not be considered to be a viable option,” he told the eamonnmallie.com website.
“We owe it to them, as well as to our children, to lift our peace process to a new level in our search for reconciliation and healing towards the securing of a lasting peace on this our island home,” he continued.
“It will take time for us to find the right words and a mutually acceptable process to address all of the issues related to our contested past.
“To begin that journey now would surely be the most appropriate way of reflecting upon what happened on all such days as ‘Bloody Friday’ and ‘Bloody Sunday’,” he said.
The politicking needs to stop, the petty point scoring, this playing with the past, and we need a process that finally takes all of this out of the hands of the police.
It was a decade ago that the former Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde talked about finding a way to close the book, and doing so with dignity and in a way that best helps the victims.
Forty years after the bloodiest days of our wars, this is the real challenge.