Clueless, Clumsy, Claptrap – Brian Rowan on Theresa Villiers play on the past

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NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers delivering her address on ‘Moving Forward’.


The heading on the Secretary of State’s speech was ‘Moving Politics Forward’ and that is about as far as it got.

This was a words on paper moment – writing it down, reading it out and walking away.

The ‘past’ isn’t going anywhere in this speech from Theresa Villiers. It’s staying where it is.

This was a spectator’s contribution, including that line that there will be no lack of encouragement or support from the UK Government as the parties continue to talk about flags, parades and the past.

It means more dithering and little doing.

The British and Irish Governments are not referees. They are players – needed at the same table as everybody else if the past is ever going to be addressed.

Their role in this is not about encouragement, but about answers.

There is a line in the speech: “This government does not believe in amnesties.”

Read further down and you find the words ‘National Security’ and the ‘burden’ of deciding what is safe to disclose publicly and what must remain secret.

Surely there is an amnesty in that thought – protection for those ‘agents’ who played in the killing games of this place.

The Secretary of State is right of course that the past is not just about the State, but nor is it just about the IRA and the loyalist organisations.

Collusion is not about a few bad apples.

The idea of international help, the need for Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, was not just that this couldn’t be worked through locally but, really, that it shouldn’t be worked through locally.

Governments, politicians – republicans, loyalists, the State security and intelligence agencies should not be pre-writing the narrative or the script.

And today Ms Villiers did just that in lines of her speech – tried to tilt the balance in a certain direction.

Let an international team do the research, speak to all those who need to be heard and then write the story line of the conflict.

It needs to examine both the what and the why.

It needs to look at the political and social context within which conflict happened.

And it needs the participation of all – governments, politicians, churches, media, republicans, loyalists and those in the worlds of security and intelligence as well as many others.

It’s about disclosure not secrets and the architecture is what both Eames/Bradley and Haass/O’Sullivan suggested.

That means an Independent Commission that starts with a blank sheet rather than a pre-prepared script written to a certain political line.

Today was just clumsy – clueless really, the usual claptrap about the past and moving on.

And there was another development, the news that Kathryn Stone is to leave the Victims Commissioner job to take up another post in England.

The past is a poison chalice and for this reason.

That the play is still about winners and losers, about votes rather than victims and, in that game, people are still being hurt.

Yes, not everybody wakes up in the morning thinking about the past, but they do if they have no legs or an empty chair, to quote someone who spoke to me today.

If Haass and O’Sullivan do decide to write another report – this time their own thinking rather than something that demands five-party consensus – then the governments and the political parties should accept it;

Accept it and let the Independent Commission get on with its work without any further impediment.

Words on paper don’t work.

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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. Superficial, sanctimonious self-interest on display by the current Secretary of State. She has created another major hurdle on the road to a shared future. Her comments lacked objectivity, balance and sensitivity. We did not hear any reference to the role of the so called Military Reaction Force. Members boasted about killing citizens and stated they would do so again. Some politicians and military commanders have questions to answer in relation to collusion which resulted in death and injury.

  2. Irwin Armstrong on

    The SoS said what the majority in NI believe, there has been a misbalance in looking at the past. Those with a terrorist past want to avoid any investigation into their evil deeds while turning a spotlight on the state. The past should not be allowed to cloud our potential to have a future but that does not mean we can ignore those who have suffered.

    It is obvious that what may soon be a majority of voters will not vote in the next round of elections. The local politicians want to stay in their narrow political dogma, it needs someone to lead NI in a different direction to provide a future with opportunity, equality and hope. Not one where our young people see no hope and only a future elsewhere.

    I have no hesitation in applauding the SoS in taking a bold initiative on what needs to happen, instead of allowing the local parties to accept that stasis is an acceptable alternative to taking decisions and moving forward.

    • Hi Irwin – I missed the bold initiative in yesterday’s speech. You’re right about needing someone to lead in a different direction, but that will only happen after an agreement on addressing the past. I believe that should be an approach that is shaped by international figures and that is honest about what is possible. Haass and O’Sullivan looked at information processes – at an Independent Commission – and also made proposals on Acknowledgement and for an Archive for all stories. I think all of that makes sense. The past should not be about any one side or story but something that thinks about the context of not just what happened but why. The primary purpose of any process should be about making sure there is no repeat of what happened and that this place we live in has something to keep our young people at home. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation.

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