Dealing with the past before it deals with us

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Denis Bradley and Robin Eames


(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

The Historical Enquiries Team has made itself a victim of our past – made the stick to beat its own back and made the wrong decisions when it came to reviewing conflict killings involving soldiers.

So, it must now hear the words of “no confidence”, and it is hard to see how it recovers from the report of HMIC – but we should also listen to the words of former Chief Constable Hugh Orde.

“It [the HET]was never ever the answer to the past,” he told me in an interview for the Belfast Telegraph.

“It was only ever going to be a tiny part, but there was nothing else,” he continued – “and, even now, there is not much else.”

So, the story can’t just end with the damming criticisms of double standards.

These things were being said before we read them in this latest report, and there are those who could easily say ‘I told you so’.

The challenge is what to do next and who is big enough to do it.

How do you take the past out of the hands and control of the police and intelligence services, and to use the words of Jarlath Burns, how do we deal with it before it deals with us.

Burns was member of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group that produced a detailed blueprint back in 2009 and, today, he is arguing we need to get it back on the table.

Orde also asked:  “Where is Eames-Bradley?”

Its detailed set of proposals included a Legacy Commission with Investigation and Information Recovery Units.

This was meant to be the structure within which an attempt would be made within a five-year timeframe to try to address many of the unanswered questions.

There was also a recommendation for a Reconciliation Forum, but what do we have today?

A political battle over the Maze/Long Kesh ‘shrine’, Eames-Bradley gathering dust somewhere and the HET being kicked around with calls for it to be kicked out.

Then what?

Who has the big idea – even any idea?

We all know what happened to Eames-Bradley.

It was dismissed in the panic caused by one of its recommendations that a recognition payment of £12,000 should be made to all families who lost a loved one.

“I am staggered that a report was allowed to be hijacked by one issue with everything else discarded,” Sir Hugh told the Belfast Telegraph.

“I assured Lord Eames and Denis Bradley I would be relaxed, indeed relieved, if they took the HET into a wider structure,” he continued.

“That would have increased its independence and transparency,” he said.

Eames-Bradley wanted the work of the HET to become part of the proposed Investigations Unit inside the Legacy Commission, but who even remembers that recommendation.

The proposals weren’t heard above the political shouts of shame.

So, now what?

In the here and now we have yet another mess, but also the reality spoken by Orde that: “To police the future, you have to deal with the past.”

Who wants to deal with it?

There is no sense or suggestion of political will and, almost twenty years after ceasefires, no plan, strategy or structure within which questions can be asked and answered.

In the Belfast Telegraph I wrote that the past is large in the present.

It is not yesterday or yesteryear, but today and tomorrow.

Eames-Bradley has a structure.

What it didn’t answer was who would participate and under what terms.

Before there is any Legacy Commission we need to know those things.

Then in a structured way think about what delivers the maximum amount of information and the best possible help to victims.

How is every story told and heard?

We need to understand and accept there is no such thing as one truth.

Maybe the design of such a process is beyond the capabilities of local politicians, and perhaps this will need international help.

We need also to understand that the past isn’t going to go away.

Just a few days ago families still searching for bodies that were disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s raised their voices to ask again for information.

For them there is no such thing as drawing a line. How could there be?

So, a process is needed.

It may have to happen in private, and it will have to address the question of amnesty or non-prosecution.

We need also to be realistic.

There will be no such thing as absolute truth from one side never mind all sides, and some answers being sought will hurt more than they heal.

This needs political will and international help.

In a tweet to me, Andree Murphy of the Relatives for Justice project accused the British and Irish Governments of disgracefully disengaging like neutral observers.

They were not and are not neutral observers and they have to be part of this.

For too long, the past has been a political play thing – a battleground.

That needs to change, and all the sides need to start looking for reasons to answer questions rather than excuses not to.

On the Eames-Bradley report, Andree Murphy believes: “There is much to sign up to and add to.”

In all the current fall out, let us all remember the HET was not about answering the past.

It was there because there was nothing else, and now we need something different.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

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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. Andree Murphy on

    The chief constable’s “Only Show in Town” comments at the Policing Board highlight how the “nothing else” can also be manipulated to maintain a status quo. An implied threat that if we take the report on the HET to its inevitable conclusions that families will be left with nothing. It was as if the HET and PSNI were doing families a favour rather than the state meeting its legal obligations and victims having rights on their own terms. It was a further re-victimisation of those who have suffered most in our conflict.

    A deeply flawed process is not better than nothing. It puts things backwards for families, and for society. Families become re-traumatised and their willingness to engage in processes is affected. This diminishes us all. We need families to be able to engage with processes with confidence.

    And for society a drawn out flawed process compounds the effects of not properly dealing with the past, and undermines the courage and imagination to break that cycle.

    Your point that international figures could have a role to play would address this in particular. It would bring courage, imagination and drive. It would put back in place the basis of the Good Friday Agreement – a rights based approach, where everyone gains and long term security for all actors achieved.

    We all have much work to do. But perhaps this week of horrific pain and in honesty fear for families will open new conversations and give those who needed to find it courage to dust off the Eames Bradley report, read it with fresh eyes and find the positives to build on, rather than the negative to dismiss it with.

    • barneyrowan on

      Andree – You’re right. The focus has to be on what can be done – rather than what can’t be done, and done for all. The past is large in the present, and this process needs big thinking and leaders. It also needs outside help. This is too small a place and we’ve all been too close to what happened for us to work this out ourselves.

  2. Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll on

    I would argue that we are dealing with the past – badly! If anything the latest concerns raised about the HET tell us that what we have been doing is inadequate. If it wasn’t this then it was going to be something else. HET were committed to a new but boundaried and cumbersome process which has yielded dissatisfaction for many. They have carried the weight of the boundaries placed on their work and by inadequate resources. Certainly the resources provided to them were never going to allow them to rise to the expectations that families had of what could be achieved or discovered. The truth is that investigations are always going to be limited – they are limited by forensics that deteriorate over time, by public interest restrictions, by witnesses who have died and cannot corroborate information and by the fact that there are those with more information who will not come forward if it would mean that they would implicate either themselves of their loved ones. If, as a society, we choose to stay with investigative measures as a means of accessing information about what happened in the past then we are restricting the levels of information that will be available.

    There are those who argue that we do not need any new processes. We simply need to keep on moving forward incrementally, building on what we have done to strengthen relationships into the future. What has happened this week concerning the HET is evidence, in my view, that they are quite wrong. We cannot go on as we are. Add to the HET revelations the debate around the SPADs Bill and the Maze/Long Kesh site, the naming of play parks, the recent flags dispute, and I could go on, and clearly the past is not only seeping into the present it is flooding it. Without any competent, joined up approach to how we deal with the past and without a focussed resourcing of that process the old conflicts continue to be played out in new ways affirming ‘us’ and ‘them’ as each attempts to imprint their version of what happened in the past over any other version of it. The competition increases for winners and losers and the stakes are high. What is at stake is a set of fragile relationships which began following the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement when people opposed to one another began to work together for a better future. The St. Andrews Agreement followed on the Belfast Good Friday and widened the circle of those who were on board, prepared to give the new relationships a chance, prepared to hold to democracy. Yet relationships remain fragile and their fragility is embedded by the past which threatens to usurp the present with its memory of suffering, terror and domination.

    In the months coming up to the launch of the Eames Bradley Report and at its launch, Denis Bradley emphasized the need to respond to the recommendations positively. He argued, on The Group’s behalf, that there was a tsunami waiting to happen and if the past was not addressed effectively then that tsunami would be seen in the results of ongoing investigations which everyone as likely to see as unbalanced and ineffective. If what has happened regarding the HET is the beginning of that tsunami then the time is now right for something to be done.

    Brian Rowan argues that there needs to be a ground preparing process in which it could be ascertained who would be willing to take part. It was the experience of the Consultative Group on the Past that everyone was willing to play their part – as long as everyone else was willing to play their part. With strong political leadership which sets out a vision for the future and which addressed the concern of expectations that can be raised too high, I believe that it is possible for something to be done. Political leaders should know that there are those across the community who will weigh in to support the careful design of a process to address the past that is flooding in on us. I am willing and there are many like me. The Eames Bradley Report provides and structured framework to begin a proper conversation across society. No matter what one thinks about the Report discussion will shape the final process – in the meantime that structured framework is essential and it is already there. Andree is right to argue that we need to begin now with what can be done. We need to begin because there are only so many onslaughts that fragile relationships can survive. We owe it to each other, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future generations to do what we can and to do it now. There is no time like the present. How tragic it would be to look back on this time and say to ourselves – if only we had taken the chance when we had it.

    • barneyrowan on

      Lesley – it all makes sense, but are those who matter listening or are they covering their ears?

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