Troubles review group report shows a necessary sleight of hand

You can’t deny the state — British or Irish — the exclusive right to use legitimate force and, at the same time, hold it to a higher standard than paramilitaries.

Attempting to do so only encourages those who would say prisoner release isa distortion of justice, power-sharing is undemocratic, and those with a past cannot have a future

DEMOCRATIC governments had a good month in May. First, French police arrested the ETA leadership, the masterminds behind a series of recent attacks that brought an abrupt end to the fledgling Basque peace process. Then, news emerged that Manuel Marulanda, leader of the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had died in his jungle lair. Just before the final whistle, though, the British government scored an own goal.

London set up the Consultative Group on the Past last year to determine how best to deal with the legacy of the Northern Troubles. Co-chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames and former Policing Board deputy chairman Denis Bradley, it emerged last week with an interim report. Final proposals will be published in a few months.

Sinn Féin and the IRA have been boycotting the process. Perhaps in an attempt to lure them in, the report majored in the role of the British state in the violence of the last 40 years. Eames and Bradley also asked the Irish Government to face up to some uncomfortable history, possibly a sop to the UDA, which is also not cooperating. The perpetrators of the vast majority of the killing – the republican and loyalist terrorists — got away in the smoke.

A page count is revealing. The sections dealing with unionist and nationalist or republican perceptions of the conflict are of roughly equal length; that dealing with the views of the British security forces is somewhat shorter. All appear trivial alongside the pages devoted to the British and Irish states’ supposed culpability.

In other words, the apparent ‘blame’ for the Troubles is being placed in almost directly inverse proportion to the responsibility for actual deaths and injuries.

It is always sobering to reflect on the numbers. For every life taken by the police — often of terrorists on active duty or accidentally — six times as many RUC and Garda Síochána personnel were themselves murdered. Indeed, many times more Catholic civilians died at the hands of the IRA than of all the state forces combined.

Republicans, not wishing to be reminded of these stark statistics, make several points. First, all those who lost their lives are equally dead, they say. Isn’t the grief of a mother whose son was shot while on ‘active service’ the same as that of the man whose wife was blown to pieces in an indiscriminate bombing? True. But is that the same as saying both equally deserved to die? Ah, but the bald figures mask the extent of British state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, republicans contend. Real responsibility for many of the deaths ascribed to the UVF lies at Downing Street’s door. Eames and Bradley broadly accept this: “Elements of the state, on some occasions, acted outside the law and through handling of intelligence it could even be said innocent people were allowed to die.”

But what is collusion? It is undeniably true the British state retained agents who committed, or failed to prevent, murder. But to have done otherwise would have jeopardised even more lives. Such assessments are necessarily difficult to make and subject to human error.

Still, there is a contradiction at the heart of republican attitudes. On the one hand, they credit London with any amount of ruthlessness and mendacity in relation to Catholic Ireland. On the other, wouldn’t the Brits have acted more efficiently if they had really wanted the republican leadership dead or were bent on some genocidal campaign? Still, even if every loyalist killing was added to the security forces’ column — and some loyalists were perfectly capable of killing Catholics out of pure sectarian hatred without being put up to it — the IRA still tops the killing league.

But the underlying responsibility for the conflict lies with the Brits, republicans reply. If it had not been for partition, the Troubles would never have arisen. Did they not stand idly by while unionism wrought countless indignities upon the nationalist population? Here the Eames-Bradley report is at its weakest. Take this sentence: “The experience of many young nationalists at the hands of the police and army, particularly after events such as Bloody Sunday, internment, the Ballymurphy killings and other events, led them to join the ranks of the IRA.”

Fair enough, you might say. But what about the many more nationalists who did not join the IRA? What about the clear majority who rejected the IRA in election after election by voting for the SDLP, a party which asserted vehemently that “the taking of a single human life” was not just unproductive but plain wrong? Those people are written out of history entirely.

This is, of course, a necessary sleight of hand on the Consultative Group’s part. On the one hand, it can only justify dwelling at great length on state misdemeanours by arguing democratic governments must be held to a higher standard than mere armed groups. On the other, it uses weasel words about the security forces doing their duty “as they saw it”. It pretends the Troubles were a war situation and the job of preserving life and property was just a perception, not a duty as defined by law.

But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t deny the state — British or Irish — the exclusive right to use legitimate force and, at the same time, hold it to a higher standard than paramilitaries. Attempting to do so only encourages those who would say prisoner release is a distortion of justice, power-sharing is undemocratic, and those with a past cannot have a future.

EQUALLY, those unionists in particular who regard the IRA campaign as nothing more than an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order cannot turn a blind eye to wrongdoing by armies and police forces.

It is often said glibly in Northern Ireland that boycotts don’t work — you have to be in to win. Sinn Féin is neatly proving otherwise. Republicans, understandably from their point of view, fear any serious attempt at finding truth. Like the DUP, which has its own skeletons, they prefer to stay in their comfort zone asserting their analysis. But, very gradually, they can see the centre of gravity moving in their direction. Those with the best of intentions, in a desperate attempt to appear inclusive, are slowly falling into the trap.

Already, the Consultative Group is sending signals that, not only will paramilitaries not be the main focus of any inquiry, but that only some very limited disclosure combined with a commitment not to go back to violence will suffice.

Such promises at one time would have had a real impact. Now, with paramilitary structures in decay, they would be regarded as cynical gestures. Besides, armed groups know governments cannot reciprocate. Governments cannot give up the right to use force in some circumstances.

The Eames-Bradley report is shot through with woolly thinking. They conclude that what is required is a process to “create and nurture a generosity in relationships” on this island. A Protestant bishop and a former Catholic priest should know that the answer isn’t in the gift of anyone else, no matter how great or good. It lies within each one of us.

It’s time to move on.

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