Playing politics with the past

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There are times when you finish an interview on radio or television and think to yourself I should have said something more; should have said it because it needed to be said and needed to be heard.

Tuesday morning was one such moment.

I came away from a discussion on the Radio Ulster Nolan Show feeling angry; angry about of a number of things, including the finger-pointing that characterises nearly every political discussion on our past.

My final thought on Nolan was that it was “very clear our politicians can’t and won’t design the process that is needed and that is why we need international help”.

I was biting my tongue, wanting to say they have neither the strategy nor the imagination nor the will to do this; that in the waiting or stalling, they are failing those who most need help.

The MP Jeffrey Donaldson was clearly annoyed by something that the Sinn Fein Chairman Declan Kearney had said at an event I chaired the previous evening as part of the Gasyard Feile in Derry.

That discussion had the title: Reconciliation in the Process of Nation Building, and, not for the first time, Kearney accused sections of political unionism of pursuing a strategy aimed at “slowing down the Peace Process with the politics of stasis”.

So, the next morning, on Nolan, Donaldson’s words and response were entirely predictable.

It was tit-for-tat.

Sinn Fein in its glass house shouldn’t throw stones.

As an important first step in a reconciliation process, Gerry Adams should say he was a member of the IRA.

Wrong-doing should be acknowledged and not brushed under the carpet, and Sinn Fein needs “to show greater leadership in bringing dissident violence to an end”.

I agree with Donaldson that republicans have much to answer, and on this website I have made it clear that if Adams and Martin McGuinness are not prepared to discuss their roles within the IRA then this is a hoax initiative; a farce – a sham.

That said, I would take Donaldson more seriously if I heard him naming the UVF leader John Graham on the Nolan Show, or the UDA leaders Matt Kincaid and Billy McFarland; heard him name a few of the figures of the intelligence world; heard him call them forward to answer their questions.

Political tit-for-tat is too easy and it is also an escape route; a way of avoiding a table of explanation.

For every question that Donaldson has for Sinn Fein, republicans will ask one of political unionism.

In that event in Derry, Kearney said he had a “wardrobe full of them”; including questions about Ulster Resistance and the arms they smuggled and shared with the UVF and UDA.

A process will only work if it asks all the questions and of all sides, and in a room or mechanism in which the rules are the same for everyone.

Those questions could be about British collusion, Dublin collusion, the roles of the IRA, loyalists, intelligence/security, politicians/Governments – as well as questions for journalists and the churches.

I said in Derry on Monday that the media also needs to understand that the wars are over.

This process should be about answers – not games, and some weeks’ ago on this website the former Methodist President Harold Good introduced an important thought to this discussion.

He wrote: “To accept our own responsibility is to challenge the other about theirs.”

That thought takes this conversation off the battlefield of tit-for-tat.

It asks all sides to think about what they did; not to wait for others, but to set the standard for others.

Sharing information, re-visiting events, correcting the narrative is not a process of rocket science, but it does need a strategy, imagination and the will to do it.

It needs an amnesty and a mechanism or structure for asking and answering questions, and the process needs an international architect.

Then, when we get to that process, Declan Kearney and Jeffrey Donaldson and everyone else can empty their wardrobes of all their questions.

There has to be a starting point, something I touched on in Derry on Monday in response to a question from Paul Kavanagh, an advisor to the Deputy First Minister.

I talked about two statements – two of some hundreds – passed to me by the IRA and loyalist organisations during my reporting of the pre-ceasefire years.

One was on the killing of Philomena Hanna in April 1992 in which the UFF claimed to be “acting on top grade intelligence”.

They described the woman they shot as a “female PIRA member” and said she was a sister of Richard McAuley, a senior aide to the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

On both points, their information was wrong, but that statement has never been corrected.

I also talked about the IRA statement issued after the Enniskillen bomb, which takes us back to 1987.

The IRA admitted placing the device but denied detonating it – words that do not stand up to scrutiny.

So, revisiting those statements – and many others – would be the IRA and loyalists accepting their responsibility and challenging others about theirs; others in Dublin and London, in security and intelligence, in politics, the churches and media.

This cannot happen in some haphazard way.

It first of all needs an off-stage discussion to see what is possible, it needs a strategy and structure; it needs an amnesty, and the doing and design of all of this has to have an international stamp.

There is of course a role for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

They should not wait for the Governments in London and Dublin, because if they do, then we will be waiting for ever.

Instead they should agree to call in that international team, and once here we will quickly find out who is prepared to accept their responsibility and who is not.

The past is not a political and media play thing and should not be used as some extension of the war.

I watch how some victims are being used and wonder are they being healed or hurt even more.

So, it is time for the next step.

That means giving someone else the responsibility of constructing this process, building it with bricks of knowledge; knowing what is possible and what is not before some commission is put before us.

It is time for the politicians to step off this stage, and for the international team to step onto it.

As part of the discussion/debate on reconciliation that has been developing here on this website, John Alderdice has sent me a film to watch.

It has the title: Beyond Right And Wrong.

Those four words should make us think; and they challenge us to walk in the shoes of others.

Have we the courage to do that – to not only tell our story, but to listen to the other person or to the other side?

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. Brian,

    ‘I was biting my tongue, wanting to say they have neither the strategy nor the imagination nor the will to do this; that in the waiting or stalling, they are failing those who most need help.’

    Can I challange you to lead by example? My brother was murdered by Republicans in the 1990’s. Following his killing you filed a report on behalf of the BBC. The information that formed the basis of your reporting was fabricated and consequently your report was entirely erroneous. It has never been corrected. This was a matter I brought to your attention personally,in a phone conversation I made to you, following his inquest. The conversation closed with an assurance from you, having consulted contemporaneous notes, that you would contact me in response to the issues raised with you. In 2012 I continue to await your response.

    • Robert – I take seriously your communication and without prejudice I would want to speak to you directly on the claims you make.
      Can you leave contact information, either email or number, by direct messaging the site editor @eamonnmallietwitter.

  2. A wayfaring American on

    Here, here, Brian. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    But, Robert has posed a very significant challenge to you as a highly respected representative of Northern Ireland journalism.

    I must admit that I am completely ignorant as to the incident to which he is referring. How about truly getting the ball rolling towards an international strategy. How about giving him and us all an answer to his challenge, or at the very least constructively tell him and us why you can’t, or failing that what in your opinion are the next CONCRETE steps that need to be taken in order to initiate an international strategy. The people of Northern Ireland await an answer.

  3. If one thing has held Northern Ireland back, it’s “whataboutery” – a convenient excuse for not acknowledging that the speaker/writer or “their” side ever did any wrong.

    Excellent article, and I also look forward with interest to hearing about Robert’s case below!

  4. Barney,

    Great article.

    I feel that what drags the truth process is the undeniable reality that certain people in the UK and Ireland (a) don’t wish the truth to be known and (b) fear truth.

    Add to that thought that on the victim side there are 2 categories: (a) the innocent civilian & (b) those that would be classed creators or contributors to the violence – Republican & Loyalist Paramilitaries, RUC, Army, successive HMGs, successive IGs.

    I know that “there is no hierarchy of victim hood” is a great sound bite but a reality is that those of us in category B (above) should morally not consider ourselves in the same category as innocent civilians?

    On the thread of victims or innocent civilians we need to remind that there are generally 3 categories: (a) Those that are content to draw a line and move on (b) those that simply wish to know truth & (c) those that seek some form of justice, revenge or to create agitation.

    Will a truth programme ever satisfy those is category C (above)?

    The first step is responsibility. Regardless of collective or individual perceptions to “justification” there must be a recognition that inflicting death or injury to others tarnished a generation and that tactics went terribly wrong causing death or injury to innocent civilians. With that admission – as individuals and collectively there then must be the willingness to help construct truth – not revenge or justice – truth.

    As discussed in other threads, there must be an amnesty for those that participate in the truth process.

    Who would be fit to take on the mantle of constructing the process – who indeed actually holds an International moral high ground on truth processes? .


    • Eamonn Mallie. on

      Glen, I do hope more and more people coming from your background at all levels, carefully study your reasoned and informed analysis regularly articulated on this website. Serious expositions like these wll form the foundations upon which to build a future.

      • Eamonn, I remember being that very young NCO debating the toss with you and Bradby on the ‘number’ of activists & thus suspects all those years ago. I was wrong and thus the Army was wrong and if we where wrong on the basics then it is only natural that other things where wrong. I’m obliged to have the opportunity to contribute, and I am happy to discuss in wider forums if called upon. It is in the sharing of our mutual ‘sameness’ that as a people ‘truth’ can be understood so we can build a sustained, stable future.

  5. Powerful writing; powerful commentary.
    However, I believe that the past always HAS been a political and media play-thing. All politicians, everywhere, selectively plunder the past and misrepresent the present, in the reasonable expectation that their target electorate will thereby be persuaded to vote for them at the next election.
    In most western countries, the political past is littered with mere political and economic miscalculations; but it seems that, in Northern Ireland, the past is literally a politically lethal minefield. Where the political history is so poisoned, and poisonous, the strategies you would like implemented indeed involve massive politically risks.
    The Good Friday Agreement didn’t deal with the deeds and misdeeds of the past, nor could it; the very governments, state institutions, political parties, organisations and individuals who were involved in it are also involved in these misdeeds in one way or another.
    Whatever those people of goodwill have said here, the practicalities require that the main actors – including, but not limited to, the governments and political parties – consent to, and facilitate, any suc process, in a manner in which they can’t subsequently “cry off” or claim they weren’t consulted.
    Can this possibly happen in the political lifetime of anyone who might be obliged to step up and give a decent burial to the skeletons in their particular closet? I fear it may not; therefore, heaven help the misfortunates who feel wronged and hope for some truth, some revelation, some admission of responsibility, some closure.
    What political actor ever included the phrase “I (or we) owned up!” in a political manifesto?

  6. Eamonn Mallie on

    A pretty powerful thinking analysis. I say ‘be not afraid’. Glen will understand when I invoke the name of the text ‘Reach for the Sky.’ We have witnessed a political miracle in Northern Ireland.

    • Yes we have, for which let us all be truly thankful. Like all miracles, it seemed to require a lot of faith and an even greater amount of hard work.
      The really tough bit will, I hope, come about too, eventually; a corresponding, commensurate, and even-more-important social miracle, which, to stretch the metaphor, is still in the hangar. I hope it’s being gradually made ready to fly.
      I expect that you, for one will urging the ground crew on. Impatiently, perhaps?

  7. Brian,

    Having challanged you publicly to lead by example I am satisfied, following our phone conversation, that your writing is not merely rhetoric for the optics. So that there is no misunderstanding by anyone outside of this conversation, your personal integrity is not being questioned. My earlier reference to fabricated information related to the statement of responsibility issued at the time of my brother’s murder and subsequent source material relied upon at that time,that you accepted in good faith, but in reality was wrong and without foundation.

    The people of N.Ireland as suggested are not awaiting an answer on this, there is no public interest here only a private and confidential search to establish the truth. Thank you for your help tonight.

    • Robert – thank you for your kind words. Thank you also for listening when we chatted earlier.
      I made clear in that conversation that I have no wish to add to your hurt.
      I reported information in good faith. I know as a result of our conversation why you are convinced that information is wrong.
      In my piece above I suggested a contribution that could be made by republicans and loyalists by re-visiting many of the statements they made and if necessary correcting the narrative.
      I said to you that this should apply to all statements and to all cases.
      Reporting conflict is a huge challenge, and a huge responsibility, and I have said publicly there is no such thing as a perfect reporting record no matter how good our sources.
      Thank you again for not only saying what you had to say when we spoke earlier, but for hearing what I had to say.

      I’ll be in touch and we’ll get that cup of coffee.

  8. Getting an International figure who has minimal baggage will be difficult but could I suggest as a starting point we could ask the Dalai Lama if he would be willing to have this inflicted on him. I dare say if he accepts he could suggest other team members.

  9. A very good article Brian, I am sick of the politicians who should know better going around in circles with their point scoring. Both sides are to blame for this, and someone with the strength of character, local or international is going to have to come forward with a meaningful and constructive formula, instead of wasting time going around in circles and treating the general public with contempt. They must know how their never ending claims and counter claims are becoming tiresome, we as a society have to move forward. Finding a solution to this debate should be a priority on the mis-doings of our past.

    • I get more cynical as time passes. Politics everywhere is largely Applied Mendacity, (Honours, in the South, A-Level, in the North).

      Just two standard political techniques, for example (for 6 marks, state three others) are:

      – Go round in circles. It gives the illusion of forward motion, plus there’s the added benefit that no-one has to lead when everyone’s just going round, and round, and round….
      – Say “We must..” a lot, but don’t actually take any initiative. You get credit for vision at no personal cost; and if some other, hardier soul (or, fool?) takes a lead, you get to criticise them for bungling it. Both ways, you win.
      – Play ‘the man, not the ball’. The’s no official ref, so you can’t lose by doing it. Plus the Lowest Common Denominator among your supporters will think you’re a great guy/gal.

      This whole issue is suffering from “analysis paralysis”. As I said, it’s like the Peace Process all over again, but without any sense of urgency, and no obvious political prizes for anyone,

  10. We do need
    to work out how to deal with the past, to do a better job than we doing at present, however,
    it’s not just about demanding the ‘top down’ answers. As you say at the end of your article “Have
    we the courage to do that – to not only tell our story, but to listen to the
    other person or to the other side?” So
    much is already happening off the ‘stage’ and that is partly what makes the
    ‘wardrobe of questions’ approach taken by politicians in public debates so
    frustrating. Conversations and initiatives
    are happening – some in public and some in private. They involve honest and robust exchanges of
    views – they show how much is possible.

    Objects transformed by the Conflict’ – a temporary exhibition coordinated by
    Healing Through Remembering – is one of those encouraging initiatives. It borrows artefacts from a range of museums,
    organisations and private collectors who all hold very different views and
    perspectives of the conflict. Each item
    has a label written by the organisation or person who owns the item. No label can be vetoed by any other
    collector. This variety of objects and
    voices gives a range of very different views of the conflict but they are all
    gathered together – many of them within the same cases – in one exhibition. The exhibition has just finished a tour round
    Northern Ireland and the border counties over the last few months and been well
    received in every location and venue.
    The whole process of staging this exhibition – the self authored labels,
    the criteria for inclusion, the venues for the tour – was worked out and agreed
    not just by Healing Through Remembering but by the different collectors involved. Those collectors include – British Army
    Regimental Museums, victim/survivor groups, local county museums, ex-prisoner
    organisations and individuals who passionately stored and recorded the

    At a recent launch one of the collectors told the gathered
    audience how he had only replied to the initial invitation to consider being
    part of an inclusive exhibition on the conflict out of curiosity – who were
    these people suggesting it? Clearly it
    was an impossible idea. He told those
    gathered for the launch that he now stood before them, not just amazed and delighted
    it had materialised but proud to be a part of it all.

    So where
    statutory bodies have struggled and local bodies have had limited impact – a
    process involving those concerned has created something much more than the sum
    of the parts. An exhibition which
    challenges while it informs has been created through agreement.

    As Harold
    Good says in one of your earlier articles “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.” That
    time taken is part of the process not a precursor to it. Yet so much is achievable when everyone is
    heard and involved in deciding what is possible.

    Whoever it
    is stepping on or off the stage the rest of must do more than just sit in the audience
    waiting to boo or to clap.

    • Hi Kate – and welcome to Your project Healing Through Remembering has done much of the hard work exploring different approaches to the past, and one would expect that if an international team is called in your place would be one of the first visited.
      I agree entirely that everyone should be heard and involved in shaping a process; let’s tell the international team what we need and let them design it.
      I’ve a concern about the time all of this is taking, because for some that time means avoidance.
      In my opinion it is stalling rather than thinking time.
      Keep involved in the debate here and encourage others to participate