Northern Ireland

Professor Peter Shirlow: The failure to deal with the past is a failure of political leadership

Floral tributes in the aftermath of 1992's attack on Sean Graham's bookmakers on Belfast's Ormeau Road. Picture by Pacemaker
Floral tributes in the aftermath of 1992's attack on Sean Graham's bookmakers on Belfast's Ormeau Road. Picture by Pacemaker Floral tributes in the aftermath of 1992's attack on Sean Graham's bookmakers on Belfast's Ormeau Road. Picture by Pacemaker

A WOMAN whose son was killed ended up, through her work, in the home of her son’s killer.

As realisation dawned, a son blasted out A Nation Once Again. On telling the story, anger led two youngsters into loyalist paramilitaries. They ended up imprisoned.

When I met her last she said she wished she had never told the story. Without fault but caught in the pernicious and squalid web that conflict weaves. I could tell similar stories about nationalist and republican friends that would stir aversion. Telling must never be an act of sectarian head counting.

Political Correspondent John Manley discusses the results of today's opinion poll with Slugger O'Toole's David McCann and Irish News columnist Mary Kelly

Violence marched quickly into lives with reconciliation dropping slowly but drop it did into a society in which 85.4 per cent of respondents now agree that ‘all sectors in our society were harmed by the legacy of conflict’.

When asking similar questions in the early 2000s fewer concurred. Developing peace lead unionist, nationalists and neither unionist nor nationalist into a place of mutual respect and acknowledgement.

Around two-thirds of each group prioritise health, Covid recovery and the economy over the protocol and constitutional issues. Such majority concerns already rendered secondary by electoral rhetoric, which proves how intuitive it is that a fifth, have yet to decide how to vote. A party that mobilises around everyday issues and importantly the societal mood that concerns reconciling the past may yet have capacity to capture floating voters.

We now live in a place of inter-community majorities framed by consent for more reconciled ways. Each community supports statements of acknowledgement and apology, diverse inter-community networks to develop shared remembering, a day of reflection to acknowledge deep hurt and truth recovery processes to address the needs of victims, survivors and society.

However, consensus is not within the proxy war that separates the dead into the categories used when targeting victims. The immiserates of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rarely mention victims who are discomforting to their narrative. Yet, here society, has spoken - ‘we recognise all who were harmed’.

People wish for truth. Yet, the battle is circadian. Recent crowd sourcing by a member of the McConville family to enable civil action against Sinn Féin, ex-RUC officer Raymond White concurring with the PPS that Police Ombudsman reports did not present an evidential basis for criminal prosecutions and the families of the Ormeau Road Sean Graham's bookmaker murders questioning why no one was jailed points to legacies of harm. Yet as much as society seeks truth it is far from convinced it will emerge.

A minority of unionist (47.6 per cent) trust the British government to provide full disclosure to a truth or information retrieval process. Similarly, only 37.7 per cent of nationalists are confident republicans would provide veracity. Here we locate the power of silence that subverts truths emergence and an inter-community reaction that truth must but will not arise. Most know the stakes are high concerning political and institutional reputation. Yet, the holders of truth demand truth while not finding ways to deliver it.

In terms of approach, 57.4 per cent want to maintain the current judicial system of police investigations, prosecutions, inquests and civil actions. 60.8 per cent wish to maintain that method but also set up a Historical Investigations Unit and an Independent Commission while 40.4 per cent support a general amnesty ending all prosecutions, inquests and civil actions. However, only 27.8 per cent of unionists, 23.1 per cent of nationalists and 31.2 per cent of neither agreed that these proposals provide the means for families to get information about conflict related incidents. A juxtaposition between supporting approaches and sensing little will change.

So, what to do when few see truth emerging and prosecutions will be rare? Martin Luther King believed that "we must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace". In the first five years of the assembly over 100 died but deaths are now rare and generally linked to internal paramilitary feuding. Despite all that happened in the past, the affirmative of peace exists.

The peace process means more advocate mutual acknowledgement and within this survey, respondents endorse Healing Through Remembering’s initiatives that position empathy at the heart of communal recollection. Solutions lying in sharing familiarity with hurt in a restorative manner. People recognise the power within the reconciliatory but do not locate trust in politicians and institutions to deliver such an emotionally engaged position. The past is, ultimately, a political leadership problem.