Delay, Dithering and Deadlock on the Past

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Those who ask why we need to deal with the past, and who in trite, unthinking words suggest we all just move on, should have a listen to and a read of the events of this past week.

The present is being pulled under the swamp that is the past; into that quagmire that is the unanswered questions relating to decades of conflict, and not just one side’s questions but all sides.


Mike Nesbitt at The John McMichael Memorial Debate at Laganview Enterprise Centre Lisburn.


Yesterday there was a speech by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt that then led to a bad-tempered radio exchange between himself and the Sinn Fein national chair Declan Kearney.

On radio, Nesbitt accused republicans of dripping in hypocrisy, and Kearney responded by dismissing Nesbitt with a charge of political opportunism.

The previous day in his speech, Nesbitt said: “Republicans were so determined to destroy the physical truth that they once blew up Northern Ireland’s Forensic Laboratory.”

I can remember the night sound of that explosion – how it was heard miles from the scene of the blast in a period of war far removed from today’s developing peace.

Nesbitt reads between the lines of that IRA bombing in 1992 describing it as “symbolic of republicans’ attitude to the truth”.

They “hated truth so much, they blew it up,” he said in his speech on Thursday.

Here we have a focus on one incident on a conflict calendar in which every day is an anniversary, and no day was untouched by what happened here.

Kearney’s point is that any excavation of the past has to think wider than what happened, but, importantly, ask, why?

So, republicans want to discuss the political policies, system and structure in place as violence occurred – what are termed the causes of conflict.

“We’ve hurt one another enough,” Declan Kearney said in that Radio Ulster interview with Joel Taggart.

The Sinn Fein leader also identified the challenge to “acknowledge the pain caused by all” – and said:

“I don’t believe that’s impossible.”

It should not be, but the public debate looks like political tit-for tat.


Declan Kearney


Some weeks ago it was Kearney and Peter Robinson, now Kearney and Nesbitt, and what we have is delay, dithering and deadlock and no way out of the swamp.

We are all being held under, brought down.

Inside the frame of the past week, the words national security raised their head again.

The project Relatives for Justice reads national security as meaning a fear of the spotlight that will be placed on military intelligence and its agents and on the play that is called the ‘dirty war’.

Inquests were suspended and, before publication of the Finucane Review report next month, already it has been dismissed by the family.

Pat Finucane’s brother Seamus made his feelings known in a tweet describing “whitewash” and a context being set for a “major dupe”.

(L-R) Pat Finucane’s son John, his wife Geraldine and solicitor Peter Madden.


Geraldine Finucane, widow of the Belfast solicitor murdered by loyalists in 1989, accused the government of trying to ensure that “the truth never sees the light of day”.

The inquest cases and the Finucane case are also dates on a calendar in which every day is remembered – Enniskillen, Shankill, Greysteel, Loughgall, Ballygawley, Gibraltar, Ballymurphy, Kingsmill and Loughinisland on a list that never ends.

So, there is no such thing as moving on, not until there is some answering, explanation, information and better understanding of the what and why on those calendar days of conflict.

As yesterday’s inquest story broke, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker tweeted: “Underlines again the need for comprehensive process to deal with the past. Gov/SoS must act on Assembly’s year old request to convene talks.”

I replied to him that “political talks about talks won’t work” – and we heard the confirmation of this in that Kearney-Nesbitt exchange on radio.

There should be a radio ceasefire – an end to these broadcast battles that are destroying rather than building confidence.

Talks with political parties should be conducted not by the Secretary of State but by international facilitators.

They also need to talk to governments – British and Irish – to representatives of loyalist organisations, the IRA/republican leadership, security/intelligence services, churches, media and others and begin to build the bricks of a process.

Before any Commission is established we need to know levels of cooperation from all sides and every side, and if amnesty is to be considered what information will be given in return.

Someone needs to pull us out of the swamp – before we bury ourselves deeper in the past.



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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. Barney, you make a number of interesting points
    which capture the tone surrounding the events of the last week. I agree
    entirely that the current process, which could be characterised as sporadic, messy
    and unchecked, is extremely counter-productive. I would like to make two
    observations from your piece. Firstly, there is a danger that words start to
    loose their meaning and identity – reconciliation, truth, and justice are
    extremely powerful and emotive words that have the power, if implemented to
    change peoples lives. However, there is not a week that goes by, where these
    words are hijacked and manipulated by people and institutions, which only serves
    to dead end any process, suck the essence and life from the terms, rendering
    them meaningless. As a result, we are
    left with a redundant language, with no tools or framework by which to advance
    this emotive subject. Secondly, you infer that we are in a swamp. I would
    disagree, and suggest that for the majority of society, life simply goes on.
    This debate continues to be dominated by a very small number of people and
    institutions, the reality for the majority of society is that the legacy issue
    is not considered a significant enough problem, but instead a condition, and
    one, which sadly they can live with.

    • Hi Jonny – in the past week or so the SDLP has published its latest paper, PUP leader Billy Hutchinson in a television interview said we need to deal with the past, on twitter yesterday Vernon Coaker talked of the need for a comprehensive process and this morning Declan Kearney and Mike Nesbitt took the top spot on the Nolan Show to debate these issues. If there is so little interest, why this political activity? I don’t think anyone should be left in the swamp – and that people who have questions deserve answers. I also think we should stop calling it a truth process, and look for a mechanism that will deliver the maximum amount of information to those who need it – however big or small that number. And if there is to be a process on the past, then let’s hope the learning from it is never to go down the road of ‘war’ again.

      • Barneyrowen when are you going to learn that there will never be true peace until the killers are brought to justice..It was a dirty war -what is worse is that those in power failed to achieve their goal of an united Ireland. They are now in power don’t have to kill for power they got it on a plate Americe Brits did a good job to keep their egos up…. Stormont is dysfunctional -Ireland will never be at peace -denial is a class word denial-keep them busy and content is the name of the game -war is business….. And i believe you are either naive or just playing it down.

        • “Justice” or “Revenge”?

          Justice was compromised when the overwhelming majority of people on this Island voted ‘yes’ to GFA which led to the release of Prisoners who’d completed Politically motivated crime, and the reality that anyone convicted of Politically motivated crime pre-1998 would be given a token punishment. As an unashamed processor of peace, as well as a victim and to some a perpetrator I can live with the reality that ‘justice’ was compromised.

          The mandatory Government arrangement is not ideal but through time the electorate will call for accountable Government with social reform ensuring a real process of those in government and those in opposition.

          Ireland has its best opportunity to be at peace in centuries – it just takes men (and women) of courage to be honest, truthful & lead.

          • Justice for everyone who wants it…..So those who killed are above the law in this dysfunctional country. Where else could this happen? but only in NI.Glenn-were does it say that the families of lost loved ones got justice nothing but corruption covers ups and state protection is that compromised….. Stormont is toxic and sectarian bigots are alive and controlling the most vulnerable – there will never be peace here tribes rule and elect the dictators. respect is earned not given….. God help the generations they will be lead to believe that all you have to do is kill and your in….

          • I’ll try answer questions rather than rants?

            There are countless peace processes where the perpetrators (killers in your view) became part of the Government. Historically, every country that ‘Britain’ has had a connection with has involved ‘criminals’ being involved in ‘politics’ or the political process that led to peace – there is no example where this participation has not happened – if you know of one, then please be specific and inform me.

            “Justice” was sacrificed on the alter of the GFA. That sacrifice may not have been well explained to the general populace but that denial, now, does not alter the fact that justice was compromised. The St. Andrews Agreement also cemented that compromise.

            There will be no ‘justice’ for anyone that was killed or those survivors of politically motivated crime that happened pre-1998.

            Frustration at some of the sectarian bigots who have been elected to control us is shared by many. It is a shameful reflection of apathy and tribalism that has created the political elite. The only thing that will change that, is for those good men & women who presently choose to do nothing to reflect then go & vote. Northern Ireland real politic can only be brought about by people voting beyond ‘orange’ and ‘green’.

            Personally, I know nothing but the period of the troubles, and our limited peace. I was born on a date (not by choice) which means that my destiny was set? Injury, loss, deprivation, repression and vengeance are realities anyone of my age knows well.

            However, one of my sons is expecting a child: my Grandchild. There are many like me and I think you underestimate the determination of my generation (from what ever side) to ensure that an honest society is created going forward.

            That society may not address all the ‘truths’ of the past but it will be based on a desire to establish real social change which in itself should bring about a foundation of honesty.

            That will be cemented by those that choose to remove the ignorance of the past.

  2. There is a real fascination and a fixation with the painful past. One side desires a full apology and explanation from the other side. Both still blame the other. The simple solution is to ask where we want to be and how we are going to get there. We don’t have to mascochistically roll about in the quagmire. What we need is a political process that has a therapeutic element in it that helps Norn Iron achieve this. At the moment Nolan et al are not helping the situation. It just keeps the situation raw. The Nesbitt and Kearney exchange is the symptom, properly managed conflict resolution is the cure.

  3. PS/f would not know the truth if it came up and bit them in the bum – your dirty war was not in my name…. Those who deny history are doomed to repeat it …. Declan K you are a sllabber.

  4. Why was more catholics murdered by their own people during your dirty war…..Justice for everyone -Declan when are you going to answer a questions….

  5. Barney, thank you. This gives us something to reflect upon in a week that has been defined by political discussions on victimhood, truth, justice and reconciliation.

    Victims are still being created. Truth and justice remains elusive and unsatisfactory. As Jonny points out these concepts of course can be susceptible to hijacking and manipulation but still the poverty of justice and truth achieved to date sustains this disquiet and drives the on-going debates.

    Broaching amnesty in such discussions colours any potential engagement from perpetrators and victims. For even the mention of amnesty fails to consider the pressure being placed upon victims’ to conform to any perceived idea of how society can move on. Why should truth only be possible through amnesty? Why does this parameter have to be floated at this stage? Moreover, has an amnesty already been effectively been granted by the Good Friday Agreement?

    The challenge for us as a society is to give a voice to those most traumatised and hurt by the violence that was visited upon us. Finding a way to enhance the articulation of victims’ experiences and memories in conjunction with documentary evidence found in archives, books and newspapers may offer an opportunity to work with our past.

    As you have suggested, the antidote to these ills may well be found in an internationally-led truth-seeking process but today’s decision by the ICTY to aquit the Croatian General Gotovina reminds us that truth remains contested, law evolves and victimhood persists.

    • Maire – I understand entirely how difficult the issue of amnesty is, but I also know there is little chance of unlocking the information and answers being sought while the potential of arrest/charges/conviction exists. I’ve also made clear that amnesty should not be discussed in isolation – we need to know what information will be offered in return, by all sides including those who played in the so-called dirty war; those who were the strings attached to the many puppets.

  6. As always Brian your contributions present challenges when thinking or engaging with the issue of dealing with the past. I am particularly concerned that if this current trajectory continues that we will, as you say, “bury ourselves deeper in the past”. The narrow focus of the debate is blocking a wider investigation and analysis of the unique legal, political and constitutional issues of that have shaped this jurisdiction.

    I just want to offer some observations that should be framing the debate. In essence without a clear assessment of what ‘dealing with the past’ actually entails (and agreed by all actors) it is hard to envision how the issue can be progressed. Additionally without such an agreed framework key building blocks of generosity and goodwill – as espoused by the Declan Kearney led Sinn Fein reconciliation initiative – is described by Unionist leaders as ‘political opportunism’. More disappointingly Unionist leaders fail to appreciate the strategic importance and significance of the Sinn Fein reconciliation initiative which in effect misses the complexity of the issue of dealing with the past.

    In many ways Republicans have been engaged this issue for more than 10 years. Worse still Unionist leaders to grasp the longevity of this type reconciliation initiative. What started at the margins with sporadic – dipping toe in the water stuff – is now mainstream within Republican thinking.

    As context as January 1999 Gerry Adams acknowledged the human impact of conflict stating, “I recognise that the death of a British soldier or an RUC member causes great trauma and grief for their families and friends. No matter about their role in the conflict the loss at a personal level is massive and regrettable.” And the IRA leadership went further in July 2002 stating that: “The future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt. That includes all of the victims of the conflict, combatants and non-combatants.”

    Such thinking has now gained traction from the Kearney led initiative – rightly or wrongly it is setting that tone for engagement that as yet is without honest reciprocation. If engaged in positively this will make possible the creation of a comprehensive process to address their questions of what circumstances created the conflict and the role of all organisations in that conflict. No process will work as Billy Hutchinson said recently unless “everybody is in the dock” and “it is about nailing people to the wall”.

    As background the Good Friday Agreement was not designed to solve the conflict nor its causes – it created a constitutional framework that shifted the contestation in the North from the military to the political sphere. As a shortcoming it did not contain a common analysis about the causes of conflict. This meant for Unionists they could argue that the conflict required a law and order issue being waged by terrorists and for Republicans it was about political struggle. This is the ambiguity at the core of the Agreement and the key stumbling block in framing what we are actually talking about when we discussing the past.

    In other words without a common frame of what the conflict was about everything including language becomes contested. We talk and use language in different ways. So when Declan Kearney seeks acts with generosity and talks about Republicans taking responsibility for past actions – evident in his heartfelt acknowledgement around the human tragedies in Claudy, in Belfast on Bloody Friday and indeed also the Shankill Bomb – it is lost on the ears of a population who tragically lost so much through Republican actions – who still see Republicans as terrorists.

    More generally when we cannot agree what the conflict was about then generosity of the Republican reconciliation initiative is lost or disregarded. As a counter-response opponents cynically seek to personalise the conflict to those who were involved in as combatants and present them as terrorist or as perpetrators or selectively speak to the past through carefully selected atrocities.

    Clearly we needs to develop bespoke frameworks that go beyond the ‘blame-game’ to engage with the interrelated political and legal dilemmas which are core to dealing with the legacy of past human rights violations – better described as the causes of conflict. These include: the nature of our political accommodation and constitutional position and an interpretation of the relationship between law and conflict over 40+ years. Without a framework that actually ‘frames’ what the conflict was about we are in a real danger of rolling back the significant political progress made to date.

    In essence without such an agreed analysis about the causes of conflict and the development of a dealing with past process it is difficult to engage with the challenges presented around the suspension of the inquests for families bereaved by British state or the truth and justice calls from families in Enniskillen, or those interned without trial or tortured or the dirty war.

    Without a this comprehensive process to deal with the past – that engages with the legal and political dilemmas that sustained and perpetuated the conflict – this society is in real danger of handing the pain and hurt on to the next generation – and with it the poisonous ink to write more poisonous chapters. The alternative and I agree with you Brian that is that “we bury ourselves deeper in the past”. In conclusion lets not loss sight of the significance of the Kearney led reconciliation initiative which if embraced will lay the foundations for an honest process that will facilitate an inclusive truth seeking process.

    • John – let’s hope that a different type of ink can be found to write the story of this conflict and by those who were part of it on all sides – and that another generation is not left to write more ‘poisonous chapters’. If people open their minds this can be done. Declan Kearney made clear yesterday that reconciliation is not a Sinn Fein project and requires all sides to be involved. The challenge is to deliver the maximum amount of information to all who have questions, but also to understand that there are broken people who cannot be fixed. There is no magic wand to make the past disappear.

  7. I agree with the comment that someone needs to pull us out of the swamp before we get buried in the past.

    In terms of truth recovery, as an inherent concept within the wider dealing with the past debate (or industry if some have their way)

    as one Republican has expressed in private:

    “do we really want to know all the secrets of a girlfriend? And what would knowing those secrets do to our current relationship?”

    of course its expressing truth recovery in human parameters, where we can all imagine clearly the impact and depth of that knowing.

    Yet it may also resonate with the wider truth recovery process being proposed in some quarters, and what would it do to the political structures and relationships, for example, that have given us the stability of governance.

    In this analysis, truth may not simply repair or reconcile a relationship, but may ultimately damage it irrepairabely and send it into reverse, decline and decay.

    This itself is something we need to consider, an inherent risk, in laying bare all the girlfriends-secrets and an inability for us to cope with that knowing. A heavy burden indeed!

    Yet all too quickly, and readily, we assume that truth is a thing that can repair and reconcile without considering the negative connoctations where it also has the potential to destroy, afterall justice is portrayed with a double edged sword…

    Also, in concentrating all our efforts and energies on dealing with the past, are we not in danger of neglecting or side-stepping the present. The present itself has many challenges, not least the Dissident Republican threat, intent on murder and mayhem, and attempting to drag us all back into the past.

    By risking causing damage to the very relationships that have given us a semblance of normality and relative stability are we not infact also contributing to a dissident agenda to destabilise our new dispensation and assist in re-creating the past, in terms of damaged

    relationships and where these may ultimately lead.

    I’m not by any account saying lets forget the past, for we cannot, but what i am saying is the present holds much more threat. If we are to have an inquiry, or have access to truth, the present is a much more imperitive reality that we cannot ignore, as it holds the potential to drag us back into the past and is displaying all the traits of this in acts of terror being instigated on our streets.

    Yet almost daily we are drip-fed assessments from ‘security sources’ that indicate these groupings are infiltrated left right and centre, yet the question is why haven’t they shut them down if the level of infiltration is so overwhelming? If the intelligence that comprehensive? If the community support that low? If the numbers that small and disorganised? if many of them remain on the security sevices payroll?

    Many would suggest, and i can see the logic, that an inquiry or process into our past wont help the families of the prison officer, policemen or Masserene soldiers..only a process into the war being played out in our present can do that.

  8. Angus McTavish on

    Political reconstruction, reconciliation and justice are terms used in the political arena and among the middle classes, for whom the war was rarely as close to home as it was on the Shankill or the Falls etc. Talk of “confidence building” and “dealing with the past” will never be crucial for the majority of the public in Ireland, as they were never intimately involved in the conflict. Perhaps its time to make progress and preparation for the future; lets stop separating our kids until the age of 16/18 and allow them to be educated together. Most kids from the lowest end of the socio-economic scale have never met their counterparts from the opposite religion, so how can they ever understand each other, let alone learn to be friends? Take religion out of schools and give peace a chance-a real chance.

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