The past is the present – Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan tells Richard Haass

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Deniers, amnesiacs, and stonewallers: step aside

The deniers, amnesiacs, refuseniks and blockers have been out in force of late.

Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies, documenting collusion in over one hundred loyalist killings was received with predictable, knee-jerk denials among some senior unionists.

The pain inflicted by the IRA and laid bare in Darragh McIntrye’s programme on The Disappeared was met with selective amnesia from senior republicans.

Attempts by the Police Ombudsman to investigate allegations of police wrong-doing in relation to a number of paramilitary killings has resulted in the refusal of retired police officers to cooperate.

Meanwhile, the demands for a public inquiry from families like those bereaved in the Omagh bomb have been met with a brick wall from the UK government.

But the denials, the forgetfulness and the obstructions cannot stop the past from catching up with us.

Like storm water coursing down the Mournes and through the gaps in a dry stone wall, the truth about the past – even if slowly – will always find a way.

No week goes past without fresh horrors, reminders of what has gone before, warnings of what could return if peace is squandered.

From coroners’ inquests, reopened police investigations, HET inquiries and Police Ombudsman reports; from taped interviews, academic studies and NGO research; from digging at the public records office to journalistic endeavours… the past teems forth.

But our flawed and fragmented processes for uncovering the past are a mess. And it’s a mess which betrays victims and bereaved families.

The failure of the State to properly investigate human rights violations and abuses from decades of violence is not just a kick in the teeth to people who have already suffered too much, it is a knee in the gut to all here who want solid foundations on which to build a society at peace with itself.

When information is delivered partially and in a drip-feed fashion, the broader truth about past violations and abuses remains hidden and the guilty are shielded. Such a faltering approach to uncovering the past undermines the possibility of any shared public understanding and recognition of the abuses committed by all sides. Instead, we bequeath our children increasingly divergent versions of history.

Of course, on the part of the UK government, it also represents a failure to live up to its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to deliver effective and independent investigation of killings.


Images courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Images courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


It is clear that what is now needed is a new approach, one that meets the State’s commitments under international law, the victims’ right to truth and justice and society’s need to address and then move on from its blood-stained past.

That approach is not to be found in ‘tea and sympathy’ for the victims, nor in leaving it just to academics to trawl old archives or create new ones. Paying lip service to the past would be the worst disservice to victims’ need for truth and justice.

It is to be found in the establishment of a single mechanism capable of ensuring that ALL allegations of human rights abuses and violations in the past – by state and non-state actors alike – are investigated in a prompt, impartial, independent, thorough and effective manner.

That means that no victim gets ignored. No ‘side’ escapes scrutiny. No-one gets to rewrite history. No-one is easily able to deny, forget or obstruct.

That is the challenge for Haass and O’Sullivan, for the parties represented at their round table and – crucially – for two parties that are not: the UK government, which would have to legislate for the new mechanism, and the Irish government which, along with London, would have to sign up to cooperate with it.

Of course, failure is very much a possibility in the haste to meet a December deadline.

But it is a failure that Northern Ireland would repent at leisure.


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About Author

Patrick Corrigan is the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International and Head of Nations & Regions at Amnesty International UK.


  1. Patrick – welcome to Haass and O’Sullivan recognise this as the toughest of the three challenges. Can they make progress? Is there the political will to answer the past? We will know soon. I don’t think we will see the type of deep drilling proposed in your recent report. On all sides there are those who just don’t want to go there. And I still think that Haass should write his proposals put them on the table and leave at the end of December.

    • Patrick Corrigan on

      Barney – thanks for the welcome and the initial invitation to post here.
      Of course, “on all sides there are those who just don’t want to go there”. That’s the problem; that’s the point of this piece.
      The blockers are stopping victims – including by extension those from their own “side”, as well as everyone else – from a) getting closer to the truth and b) being able to access justice, if that’s what they want and there is sufficient evidence to take them there.
      This lip service approach to victims needs to be challenged across the board, from within communities where so many families yearn for truth, and from everyone else who wants to do right by victims and society at large.
      I agree with you that, if the inter-party talks don’t deliver meaningfully on this, Haass should leave behind strong recommemendations and an obligation on those left behind in Belfast, London and Dublin to deliver.

      • Patrick – was struck by something the veteran journalist Alf McCreary said on UTV Live Tonight – that there are those who still want to ‘win’. Let’s hope that any exploration of the past is not reduced to some petty political game of winners and losers. The challenge is to find the key that will unlock the maximum amount of information from the many sides. That will take some thinking outside the box and from outside the conflict zone. It’s why Haass and O’Sullivan are here. Their thinking and proposals may give governments and others something to work with.

  2. Surely the law is deeply flawed if the police, the supposed custodians of the law, can arbitrarily decide to refuse to co-operate with the government appointed ombudsman.
    They have always regarded themselves as the body to impose the law, rather than to live by it.
    It begs the question, have we moved forward at all since the RUC morphed into the PSNI? Their tactics are the same, they behave the same, so maybe we’re heading back to the Black and Tan days of summary ‘justice’ being applied only against nationalists.

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