BIG Talk on The Past – By Brian Rowan

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George Hamilton, PSNI

The conversation will be on stage at Feile an Phobail – the west Belfast Festival.

And the big talk – scheduled for August 6th – comes with a big thought.

“The politics are too slow,” Chief Constable George Hamilton told me. Too slow he means to put in place a structured process that will at least begin to answer some more of the questions of the Past.

Hamilton is sharing the stage with Martin McGuinness – for decades identified with the IRA’s ‘war’ and, now, deputy first minister at Stormont.

I will chair the event.

The discussion topic: Will the questions of the Past ever be answered?

“Events such as this are critical to inform the debate,” Hamilton told me – “because the politics are too slow.”

“These uncomfortable conversations have the potential to nudge us all towards a process that allows questions to be answered,” he continued.

“It is going to be impossible to answer all of the questions to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said.

“Too slow” – was the thinking also recently expressed by Sandra Peake at the WAVE Trauma Centre.

“The bereaved victims and survivors have to wait,” she said.

“They were told to wait for the outworking of Eames/Bradley. They were told to wait for the outworking of Haass/O’Sullivan. Now, Stormont House. It has to deliver,” Ms Peake said.

There are all sorts of suggestions about what waits around the next political corner. Politics is stuck in a welfare reform and cuts stand-off, and Stormont’s present and its uncertain future are today’s focus.

The agreement on paper in relation to the past is for a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG).

But, here, when politics gets mired on one issue it tends to get stuck on them all.

This is what makes it too slow.

Martin McGuinness has said the “essential legacy mechanisms” must proceed but can they, will they, with politics stuck on the big money arguments?

Will we be any further down the road when McGuinness and Hamilton share that Festival stage in a few weeks’ time?

This event is not just about what will be said, but the very fact that it is happening; A serving Chief Constable and one of the most-influential republican leaders of recent decades involved in the same discussion at the same time also has symbolic importance.

“As director of Feile I am delighted that we are hosting this prestigious event,” Kevin Gamble said.

“Martin McGuinness is one of Ireland’s leading politicians and George Hamilton is the north’s leading police officer.
Martin McGuinness
“They are addressing a very important issue for thousands of relatives who lost loved ones in the conflict and that is the issue of truth and how truth is to be achieved,” he continued.

“I believe the debate will make a valuable contribution to achieving the much sought after truth,” Kevin Gamble said.

Perhaps what needs to be remembered mostly in conversations such as these is that there are truths and not just truth, pasts and not just a past, and sides and not just a side.

It is about the widest frame and not just a corner of the picture, and it is about everyone co-operating with the same rules and in the same rooms.

This should not happen within some political strait-jacket but should be independently and internationally shaped. Otherwise it will be the same-old same-old.

This Hamilton-McGuinness event has a different look to it.

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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 and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. Barry Fennell on


    This is very much a necessary, valuable and timely debate as well as an open conversation, and the fact that it is being hosted by my former colleagues at Feile an Phobail says quite a bit about the organisation, their ethos and their willingness to have such a forum following recent documentaries. It is certainly a ‘big’ talk but also an opportunity to talk about the big ‘P’ the P that we tend to avoid, take potshots at each other over and one that remains seemingly intractable, emotive, divisive and controversial. The past is and remains a battleground here of political intransigence, improper commentary and unprincipled tit for tat gamesmanship. It shouldn’t be this way and the fact that we are again hostage to the standoff at Stormont doesn’t allow for meaningful progress on this issue that deeply affects so many. There should certainly be, you would think by now, an agreed and sensitive apparatus fully implemented capable of dealing with loss, trauma, murder, hurt and suffering. Victims to date have been let down as the approach to the past has been quite frankly fragmented and flawed due in part to our dysfuntional politicians. The failure to deliver an agreed, sensitive and comprehensive approach to dealing with our past contributes not just to further hurt but also to wider societal division. We have to move beyond our political failings, inherent limitations, historical bitterness, and our narrow mandates to provide the full truth involving all sides during three decades of violence. A full comprehensive and community responsive mechanism and apparatus has to be put in place to review, recognise, examine and answer the conflict as a whole and also to determine responsibility. I do think we are some way off this but if uncomfortable conversations have to take place in order that we get there then so be it. A mechanism that really deals with ‘all’ that went on here would certainly be an important step towards ending the uncertainty, anxiety, waiting, and pain of the not knowing. Let’s hope that we can handle the answers and move on because this is essential.

    • barneyrowan on

      Barry – there is an opportunity in conversations such as this to set an example – to convince people that there is a seriousness about trying to address/answer the past. Let’s hear what they have to say and what others then have to say and do. I think they are showing policing and political leadership.

  2. Eamon all though this is nothing to do with Jamie Bryson, why oh why are you deleting my posts. I’m simply passing the message on that Bryson is not to be trusted and he’s not from the WORKING CLASS COMMUNITY, google his mothers name and see for yourself that the guyis really full of it.

    Better to get this out before he ever ever makes it onto the Council or god forbid Stormont on his fake family BACKGROUND!

  3. Ben De Hellenbacque on

    While not having lost any close relatives or friends in the ‘war’ but not wanting to discount other people’s loss I believe that here is another opportunity to address the wider truth of our divided society, contested region and opposing identities. I say another opportunity because I have attended several such meetings where resistance to resolution and reconciliation on ‘my terms’ have only achieved such a frustrating obtuseness that making no progress often apears to be the primary aim. Skirting so diplomatically around the elephant in the room so that we don’t acknowledge our own delusional bigotry will get us nowhere. I then read Kevin Gamble’s clumsy assertion that there are “truths and not just truth” and I am immediately reminded of the Orwellian language deployed before and immediately after the GFA. The “newspeak” of that time – 2 truths: one CNR & the other PUL – was useful in promoting the collective psychological shift (a mutual respect-lite) that enabled the GFA’s acceptance by popular vote. That we needed such transitory absurdity to manoeuvre us towards seeing sense says a great deal about us as a people. We were even encouraged through a phase of convincing ourselves that we were all victims of equal weighting but that was more for the perpetrators’ self absolution.
    I hope that Gamble’s intention was that by “truths” he means a truth that is acceptable to indvidual people and families. However, in a wider debate about why we are so divided, fearful and suspicious it’s too kaleidoscopic for easy comprehension nor for acceptance of a collective truth. In a society where a lot of mythbusting is essential and the truth is often distorted, I think it dangerous to claim that truth is multiple.
    As individuals it is important that we have a sense of ownership over our pasts and this is the process of establishing our personal truth – our own narrative. Unfortunately, that is one of the things that victims’ loved ones are often robbed of sometimes for political capital. However, many bigots never lost loved ones and they’ve claimed their own ‘truth’ already. Believing in a plurality of truth may be applicable but only in some circumstances and only as a process. The product has to be the whole and unequivocal truth – the elephant in the room.

  4. Great piece Barney, as always.

    Will we be having any meaningful, heavy weight unionist politicians on the stage at this event also? This is not meant as some kind of pot shot, however, I am amazed at their apparent (though I may be mistaken) lack of interest in such a process or how they see it as some kind of trap from SF to try and tie all blame on their shoulders for what has happened in the North. I personally don’t see how this could ever happen and if such a process did ever happen, well it would be self-evident that we would not get reconciliation among the two ‘tribes’ and it would undoubtedly make things worse.

    Best of luck at the event, looking forward to the write up later on.

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