Legacy issues must be resolved: Face the past so we might escape it

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey

When, in the early 1960s, James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time to try to explain racism, he could not have imagined that half a century later it would remain relevant. 

At a moment when division and inculcated fear are used to distract from accelerating inequality his words sting once more. 

Writing about the hate behind racism, he warned: “One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” 

Even if this is not a virulently racist society, or at least as virulent as others, we cannot dismiss the argument that lingering, easily-stirred, legacy hatred is not a presence. 

The vast majority of people on this island can dismiss that idea, they do all they can to transcend opportunities to spew old poisons but one event or another rattles the oldest drums.

The casual murder of Lyra McKee is an example of how hatred plays out though the reaction to that atrocity, and the sinister forces behind it, must inspire optimism. 

McKee’s life was a symbol of what can happen when hate is retired but her death showed how hard its legacy is to escape. 

Once again, hatred spoke because it was unresolved, because we, as Baldwin warned, are not ready to face the pain of settling the past.

This week’s events in Belfast’s high court, where police raids on the homes and offices of two journalists were described as the kind of “outrage” that characterises a police state, is another strand in that tragedy. 

The raids were, the court heard, intended to uncover sources and intimidate whistleblowers — or, if you care to express that differently, ensure that the suspicions of the past linger to stir fading embers. 

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey have, for a number of years, worked to try to establish the truth behind the murder of six men at Loughinisland, Co Down, in June, 1994, and how that atrocity was handled by the RUC. 

Suspicions of collusion are unshakeable, and continuing police actions seem a tacit confirmation of this. 

Old scars are picked and, as Baldwin warned, the pain of facing the past honestly even a quarter of a century after the event is avoided.

Ongoing efforts by Conservative MPs, some of whom were soldiers in NI, to have protections against prosecution for soldiers extended to those who served in NI are another strand in this saga — even if the early release of terrorists under the Belfast Agreement seems to bolster those calls. 

There is, however, an important difference. The terrorists’ roles were established in a courtroom and are now part of the recognised history of that conflict. 

In too many instances, the role of the security forces remains contested and inflammatory. 

Maybe that legislation should focus on limiting sanctions rather than precluding prosecutions, thereby going some way to serve justice and settling history.

Sinn Féin’s election showing suggests that an article of faith for some who would deal with the past in a particular way — a vote on a united Ireland in the medium term — may not be widely shared. 

Such a vote would be dangerous and deeply divisive unless the events, the hatreds of our shared past, are finally recognised and processed so we can all, like Lyra McKee had hoped, live on an island at ease with itself.

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