When the guns fall silent, the battle over the past begins

When the guns fall silent, the battle over the past begins

Image copyright: Aaron Edwards

Aaron Edwards, RMA Sandhurst, and Cillian McGrattan, University of Ulster

For many people in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland remains a place apart. Although it has enjoyed some semblance of peace in recent years and is relatively safe (there were only 14 murders last year, with just two linked to terrorism), it still conjures up images of discord that look distinctly parochial. Key political issues continue to be plagued by the persistence of ethno-nationalist sentiment, manifesting itself in intense disputes over parading, the flying of the Union Flag aloft government buildings, and, above all, disagreement over how to deal with the legacies of a violent past.

As a mechanism for grappling with these outstanding grievances in a systematic way, the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive commissioned a fact-finding mission by former US State Department official Dr Richard Haass, with the explicit task of reporting on how a common approach might be found to move beyond these issues. At the outset, a degree of optimism pervaded the process, with Dr Haass and his co-chair Dr Meghan O’Sullivan receiving over 600 submissions from political parties, NGOs, academics, victim support groups, community-based organisations and ordinary citizens.

However, following crunch negotiations over the Christmas period, Haass and O’Sullivan are now back in Washington having failed to broker consensus among the five major Northern Irish political parties.

In the wake of their departure the Executive published the draft proposals arising from the Haass-O’Sullivan talks. Worryingly, the 39-page document suggests that parading and symbols should be left on the backburner, or handed to ‘commissions’ to superintend. But it is the most detailed part of the Haass document (accounting for 9,000 words) concerning ‘contending with the past’, that has generated perhaps the least public debate, but is, in our view, the most potentially debilitating strand of the three explored in roundtable talks.

Haass advocated the establishment a swathe of quasi-non-governmental organisations to adjudicate on these issues. One such organisation proposed is the so-called Historical Information Unit (HIU), which would subsume existing institutions responsible for investigating over 3,200 unresolved killings. Although intellectually curious there is evidence to suggest that, rather than taking the past out of contemporary politics, Haass’s vision will instead lead to the recycling of ethnic narratives.

Take, for example, the revelation that 187 republican ‘On-the-Runs’ (individuals who have thus far evaded prosecution for some of those unsolved murders) were allegedly given personally-addressed letters of assurance from the Northern Ireland Office that they were not being sought in relation to specific terrorist-related crimes. It appears that the New Labour government under Tony Blair was so desperate to see a deal done on power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein in 2007 that they decided (unilaterally and without popular consultation) to forego the future possibility of bringing those who perpetrated some of the most heinous crimes to justice.

At the time of writing questions remain, with critical unresolved issues remaining about who knew about these letters. The implication of these revelations for the Haass Proposals is that, rather than making ‘dealing with the past’ a victim-centred process, the HIU might instead function as a kind of ethnic vendetta. With republican terrorist suspects deemed immune from investigation, while loyalist terrorists and state personnel (including, retired police, military and civil servants) remain open to investigation and prosecution, it seems unlikely that Unionist politicians will agree to the continuation of what they view as a ‘concessional process’ for republicans. At the time of writing, the First Minister has demanded the letters be rescinded and the process by which they were issued be subject to proper inquiry – it seems the political process will continue but with a more publicly confrontational tenor.

It must be said that even though the British state cajoled the IRA into decommissioning its vast arsenal of weapons and high explosives – thereby neutering its ability to place bombs in mainland UK – it is unlikely to want to do anything to exclude Sinn Fein from a process when dissident republican terrorism remains a top national security priority (even despite recent reports that active dissidents do not number more than around 30 individuals).

The difficulties faced by the British state are further compounded by the Haass/O’Sullivan approach to dealing with the past more generally. In many ways, the centrepiece of the proposed architecture is an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR). According to Haass the ICIR will assess the presence of ‘certain patterns or themes’, including ethnic cleansing and collusion. The unarticulated risk in this approach is the creation of a politics of equivalence: the rationale of terrorists who sought to kill people on a daily basis will be balanced against those who sought to uphold the rule of law and maintain some kind of social order. It also opens the door to a kind of relativism in relation to the past: one community’s ‘theme’ or set of historical grievances will be offset against those of the ‘the other side’. The aim of such historical cherry-picking is to establish a workable version of the past that will facilitate ill-defined reconciliation. The past is reduced to a kind of Rorschach blot of differing perceptions and in which a blind eye may be turned to unpalatable truths.

Although informed by a liberal emphasis on institutions being a kind of panacea to ethno-factional politics, the Haass recommendations leave more substantive questions concerning terrorist murders of unarmed civilians (the vast majority of which remain unsolved) and might even compromise the fundamental principle of liberal democratic states being within their rights to respond to terrorism in the future by enshrining the principle of post-hoc justification through a kind of thematic explanation.

The rationale is based on the Haass team’s apparent belief that a ‘diverse democracy’ can accommodate difference. As the Haass proposals make clear, the thematic approach ‘will provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgements by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases’.

We would caution against this: perpetrators have already issued collective apologies in previous self-serving statements (loyalists offered an apology to ‘all innocent victims’ in 1994 while the Provisional IRA only acknowledged ‘that many people had suffered in the conflict’ in 2005), none of which have opened the door to individual or collective culpability. Likewise, they have been criticised for being less than forthcoming in giving evidence to judicial inquiries into Irish state collusion with republicans and Bloody Sunday. Perhaps more vitally, these acknowledgements have not expressed the view that political violence was wrong and should never be allowed to happen again.

Nevertheless, the Haass proposals are, in some respects, new: they borrow from South Africa but do not go as far as requiring ‘full disclosure’. Instead they promise a type of amnesty-plus: evidence can be protected, or ‘limited’ from future prosecution. The extent to which this will prove successful in a region where received ideas about history has inspired almost four decades of bloodshed is uncertain.

The thematic ‘report’ may not be published if the key armed actors to the conflict refuse to cooperate; however, that judgment will very much depend on the personnel appointed to the information recovery unit. In addition, it is a matter of conjecture as to how much information is actually available in the various archives in the Republic of Ireland, UK and elsewhere: in other words, a lack of evidence may not mean ‘no evidence’, but it could be construed as such by those prone to articulate conspiracy theories in lieu of comprehensive retrieval. In the meantime, the process of thematic recovery promises to inaugurate a new round of self-exculpation that risks reproducing the ethnic folk wisdom that fuelled the conflict in the first instance.

Our alternative would be to foreground historical accuracy. The basic facts about the conflict – and its general patterns – are already publicly known – relativizing historical responsibility will not negate them. It is factually correct, for example, to point out that republican terrorists were responsible for almost 60% of the 3,500 deaths, loyalist terrorists for 30% and state forces for the remaining 10%. Historians have a responsibility to ensure that basic facts such as these are not manipulated to serve the zero-sum game of ethno-national one-upmanship, especially when resulting myths can so easily be used to justify political violence in the past, present and future.

As members of a cross-community group of historians, Arkiv, which has publicly called for a Historical Clarification Commission (HCC), we would advocate the merits attached to its independence and commitment to an internationalist outlook. A HCC would comprise three elements: archival research, including the necessity of opening up government archives in Britain and Ireland; oral testimony taken from those who perpetrated acts of violence and suffered their consequences; and comprehensive public engagement, opening the door to those people who feel disconnected from sectional political party leadership.

The Haass proposals provide the space for the development of a HCC, but the idea has been placed in suspended animation within a diluted ‘Historical Timeline Group’. The Haass proposals for a HIU are unlikely to work in a polity where factionalism, sectarianism and the zero-sum nature of the ethno-national conflict remain constant. We would advocate a rebalancing in favour of the principle of the rule of law – the bedrock of any liberal democracy – in which the emphasis revolves around a Historical Clarification Commission option. This would look at the critical aspect of agency – why certain decisions rather than others were taken. It stands in contrast to the explanatory device offered by the HUI thematic model which, in allowing actions to be explained in reference to overarching patters affords a certain oxygen of legitimacy to terrorist offences, especially in those cases where offences committed would be on a par with atrocities, war crimes and/or mass murder if prosecuted under the auspices of international law.

Despite its reputation as ‘a place apart’, battles over the past are not unique to Northern Ireland – one has only to look at the current debates within and between the UK and Germany over how to best commemorate the First World War to see the difficulties attached to determining the causes of a well-known global conflict. However, what epitomises politics in Northern Ireland is the way in which those battles remain at the centre of political life.

It is our view that only by removing the past from the political arena and giving it to those most ably equipped to (in the German sense) work through it will Northern Ireland be able to awaken from the Joycean nightmare that is its history. Rather than facilitating agreement between the parties, Haass’s belief that the parties should have agreed with him has resulted in an impasse. It is not certain that his proposals will drain history from politics in Northern Ireland; this latest third party failure has, however, served to inaugurate a period of uncertainty which, with elections due in May and then again next year, it is difficult to predict when movement towards a compromise deal can begin. The danger of course is that – in the interregnum – groups opposed to stability and peace may exploit the opportunities for further inter-ethnic disturbances. Just as the legacy of the past remains unresolved so too does the legacy of the Haass-O’Sullivan intervention.


Aaron Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is the author of A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism (Manchester University Press, 2009; 2011) and, most recently, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire (Mainstream/Penguin Random House, 2014).

Cillian McGrattan is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He is the author of Northern Ireland, 1968-2008: The Politics of Entrenchment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and is currently writing a book on truth recovery and the politics of trauma for Routledge.