‘LEGACY TALKS – everybody in the front door…’ By Brian Rowan 

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Why should loyalists be involved in legacy talks?

The answer is simple. It should not be complicated in conversations and arguments about mandates and votes.

Loyalists should be involved because there are questions relating to the past that only they can answer.

There is no other reason. But when politicians and governments lock doors and leave people outside, they also leave them with an excuse.

Why, loyalists could argue, should we engage with a legacy structure in which we had no part in designing?
That intended legacy structure is an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) and an Oral History Archive.

Governments and political parties have been shaping the process, which is stuck in fine-detail arguments, including national security and what information will be revealed and what will be withheld.

The suggestion that this is the only issue to be resolved is, quite frankly, nonsense.

There is no clear or certain indication of what the IRA and loyalist organisations will contribute to the process. Those who can speak with authority for the IRA, UDA and UVF leaderships need to be asked the question.

Writing on this website in recent days, Winston Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party argued that “to exclude loyalists from a legacy process…is to impede and sabotage any progress on how we engage and deal with the past”.

He also wrote: “We must be wary of a process that pits information recovery against police investigation.”
In other words, his argument is you cannot have both, but this is exactly what is intended – that there will be both a HIU and an ICIR.


Irvine described the need for “honesty about what really can be achieved for victims and survivors”. What he means is that expectations should not be exaggerated.

There are many questions that will not be answered.

So, none of this is about mandates or votes or funding.

It is about knowing what is possible and what is not.

Nobody in government or in the political parties negotiating this process is in a position to tell the public what loyalists might reveal about shootings, bombings, arms shipments or anything else.

Nor are they in a position to say what republicans will reveal about any of the above.

The Secretary of State James Brokenshire is thinking about a “public phase” or consultation.

What will his answer be if asked by the public what this process might deliver in terms of republican and loyalist cooperation with any legacy process and what national security will mean when it comes to revealing or withholding information on the issue of collusion?

Does he have an answer other than “let’s wait and see.”

Irvine’s article on this website and subsequent radio interview with Vinny Hurrell on the Nolan Show prompted a number of responses – political and other – including from the MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who wrote, There is no back door in this process.

I replied to that tweet: Everybody in the front door and let’s see what happens.

Of course, in any political or peace process, there is always a back door or a side door, but the legacy issue needs a front door and an open door.

It also needs someone – independent and international – to ask all of the relevant parties all of the relevant questions about what is achievable and what is not.

This means questions for governments, for politicians, for those in security and intelligence and for republicans and loyalists – the IRA, UVF, UDA leaderships – about levels of cooperation, about answers and about information; the right questions being asked of the right people across the board.

And perhaps, after this, the time will be right for public consultation.

Will there be such a pre-process – international and independent – to assess possibilities Probably not. The question is, why not?

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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 www.merrionpress.ie


  1. It need not be International to be independent. Trust, rather than perceived impartiality based on geographic dislocation, is the key to facilitating this engagement. Additionally, its not that a door is locked or barred; its possible that reticence about opening the door, whether it be back, side or front, might be based on the answer given to the question “who’s there?”……. perhaps more might need to be done to understand who is knocking before the door is opened.

  2. The important thing is having the people in the room who will be expected to deliver and cooperate. Important also that those who have questions have a realistic understanding of what is possible. Those who have important roles to play should have a key to the door. This process is not just about what governments and parties think and expect – but what will be expected of them.

  3. The morass of NI politics is something we could all sink in very easily. My view is that there is a formal process with various agencies, parties, government bodies etc that should constantly be working towards a more settled future, and an informal process with elements such as the UVF and other paramilitaries and clandestine agencies who still need to explain themselves and assist in dialogue. The formal should integrate with the informal in a constructive way and when this happens confidence will grow and we will solve these terrible issues. So Brian Rowan is right in saying the legacy issues need a front door … in the context of adding to the healing process. I think we need to progress to a ‘stage two’ in the peace process now that peace has decended on us. Refined guiding principles need to be agreed.

    Why do the main Unionist parties not want an input from the loyalist groups? Back in the All-Party Talks in the 90’s I clearly remember talking to Gusty Spence with the PUP – he was giving off on a range of issues. Most of these issues probably still need an airing today. It is a time to show more trust and unconditional regard to one another – otherwise hatreds and suspicion will continue to eat the heart out of NI for a long time to come. And we are looking at a number of uncertainties outside our control in the next few years that may dwarf parochial attitudes and the unwillingness to pull together e.g. Brexit.

    One of the problems in any therapeutic process especially the peace process is ‘flooding’. May I explain: if our society was a house with many rooms and each room had a different band in it, and we walked through that house opening and closing doors to discover what was in each room, we would eventually be overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound especially if all the doors opened at once. We’d be confused, stressed, overpowered, dysfunctional.

    In other words, some things need to stay in the room and not be publicly shared for fear of causing wider social stress which is a fact of life in NI. The political parties in the formal process need to step up to the plate and accept this. I am not an advocate for the PUP, but essentially Winston Irvine and his party have a point that needs to be listened too… before it is too late.

    SoS Brokenshire will probably consider a consultation process no doubt. But we must be realistic and pragmatic. Narrow political and social idealism could ruin progress in the peace process before this consultation gets of the ground.

    • When doors open they bring both possibility and responsibility. What process will achieve maximum information/cooperation? Is it investigation or information retrieval? We need to work out what addressing the past means. Is it a parade of shame or a process that attempts to ensure no repeat of the conflict years? Other processes have worked best when those expected to deliver have been part of designing them – part of the working out.

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