Dealing with Northern Ireland’s Troubled Past is more than a ‘day in court’

Dealing with Northern Ireland’s Troubled Past is more than a ‘day in court’

Brendan Ciarán Browne

In the ‘post-conflict’ arena of Northern Ireland, escaping the legacy of the past is nigh on impossible. Gable end walls of terraced buildings across the city become the artist’s canvas; opportunities to promote contested historical narratives, mark out territory and share single identity ‘visions’ of the future. Flags and emblems of proscribed paramilitary organisations, groups who have supposedly exited the stage left, remain features of the ‘post-conflict’ landscape. Leading scholars on the politics of territory in Northern Ireland, Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh (2006: 2) note that the city is ‘one of those places within which history, identity and culture are played out, in a dramatic and public manner, through the instruments of threat, menace, violence and deviance’.

Beyond our visible physical and social segregation, a legacy of our bloody past, a sizeable number of those living in Northern Ireland carry a heavy burden on their shoulders; they are the families and loved ones of the approximately 1700 civilians murdered during the conflict, those who are yet to receive any form of ‘justice’, however conceived.

In recent weeks a ‘new’ set of proposals for securing meaningful ‘justice’ for victims and survivors of the ‘Troubles’ have been thrust into the media spotlight, yet again being considered before the court of public opinion. The end of a public consultation on ‘Addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past’ has resulted in some stakeholders publicly expressing dissatisfaction at the various proposals, most vocally the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, referring to the options put forward as being ‘one sided’.

Dealing with the past in Northern Ireland is a task that has gone hand in hand with that of generating the ‘peace’.  As early as 1997 proposals were tabled in an attempt to give some sense of closure for victims and survivors; The Bloomfield Report of 1998, the Eames- Bradley Consultative Group Report in 2009, the Haas Report 2013, and most recently the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, have each sought ways of making sure victims and survivors feel a sense of closure. Alongside these proposals, public inquiries and individual high profile prosecutions have been used in order to seek some form of victim and survivor redress, albeit in a way that has been referred to as ‘piecemeal’ (McEvoy, 2006).

The most recent proposals stem from much of what has been considered before. They comprise the establishment of an Historical Investigations Unit (independent from the Police Service of Northern Ireland) to examine unresolved troubles related deaths, an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval which will be directed by the intentions of those families who wish to garner additional information on a loved one, and an oral history archive designed to document and store personal ‘Troubles’ related testimony in the one place.

One of the major stumbling blocks for any Historical Investigations Unit (as has been the case all along) is its capacity to gather sufficient forensic evidence that will be needed to discharge the evidential burden, linking suspect to the crime in question. The much lauded decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, a major step forward in enhancing trust in the fledgling ‘Peace Process’ included a statutory provision (The Northern Ireland Decommission Act (1997)) that ensured that no forensic evidence would be gleaned from weapons gathered under the amnesty scheme. Thus, any proposed Historical Investigations Unit faces an almost insurmountable task in gathering sufficient evidence to link any individual to a potential murder weapon. So much so that head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, has suggested that the likelihood of securing any convictions sits at around 4%.

As in all peace processes, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland was hard fought. After multiple false dawns, plunging the Northern Ireland Assembly into myriad crises, the decommissioning of weapons was eventually implemented under the watchful gaze of the Reverend Harold Good and Fr Alec Reid. Decommissioning was much more than a symbolic gesture; it helped persuade those who were understandably sceptical, that there existed sincerity to the commitment of maintaining the peace. Thus, chastising the past imperfections of the decommissioning process in the present day serves little useful purpose for anyone. In arguing that the lack of forensic evidence recovered at the time has seriously undermined due process, those who seek to use the issue as a political football, (such as Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister who whimsically dismissed the situation as being the result of ‘reaping what you sow’), would do well to consider the bigger picture.

That being said, given the extremely low chance of court led judicial success, it is not unreasonable to ask, why a Historical Investigations Unit is being proposed as a means of best helping the families of victims draw a line in the sand? Accepting the heterogeneity of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and their desire for justice for their loved ones, there are many families who still place great value in going through ‘due process’. However, equally there are others who have decided that, the odds being what they are, a messy judicial procedure is far from what they need at this stage. There is also no guarantee that uncovering the truth about what happened to a loved one will in fact lead to a healing of the trauma suffered. As a recent study has suggested, ‘More extensive research is needed examining the complex relationship between trauma and truth in post conflict societies’ (Haas, 2017). Getting the balance right in this regard is thus an unenviable and so far unattainable task.

Court proceedings are blunt, impersonal affairs. As victims and survivors of other global ethnic conflicts have revealed, the day in court can in fact be counterproductive to ones overall well-being. Not all victims wish to have an intrusive examination of the details of the death of their loved one teased out publicly, only for a lack of ballistic or forensic evidence to see the case dismissed.

For many, catharsis comes from the opportunity to share and discuss, to attend centres where trauma and well being are better understood, or to memorialise and commemorate in communion with others. In this instance, we must be careful to ensure that ‘hard’ judicial approaches that are so often the proposals that grab media attention are not promoted as the gold standard out of all the options put forward save it serves to undermine the efficacy of so-called ‘soft’ alternatives. Rather than squabbling over what is or is not a one-sided judicial process, all parties across the sectarian divide should strive to alleviate the hidden burden of victims and survivors by ensuring the infrastructure exists for providing immediate trauma support for victims and survivors whilst also vigorously endorsing the so-called ‘soft’ approaches to dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

Bloomfield, K., (1998) The Bloomfield Report, Belfast: Stationery Office Northern Ireland.
Eames, R. and Bradley, D. (2009) Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, Belfast: Stationery Office Northern Ireland.
Hass, K. L. (2017). “Exploring the link between trauma and truth in post conflict societies: comparing post conflict Northern Ireland and post apartheid South Africa”, Intervention, Vol. 15(3), pp. 254-263.
McEvoy, K. (2006) “Making Peace with the Past: Options for truth recovery regarding the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, Healing Through Remembering.
Shirlow, P. and Murtagh, B. (2006) Belfast: Segregation, violence and the city. London: Pluto Press.


Brendan Ciarán Browne is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, member of the Trinity International Development Initiative and Fellow in the Trinity Centre for Post Conflict Justice at Trinity College Dublin, Belfast.