Abuse files should be used to learn lessons

When, on Wednesday, Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley insisted that killings by the British army or police during the Troubles were “not crimes” she gave a perfect example of what happens when politicians are ill-informed and have no empathy with their brief. Despite her immediate apology, the blunder suggests she is hardly the person

Abuse files should be used to learn lessons

When, on Wednesday, Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley insisted that killings by the British army or police during the Troubles were “not crimes” she gave a perfect example of what happens when politicians are ill-informed and have no empathy with their brief.

Despite her immediate apology, the blunder suggests she is hardly the person to mediate the restoration of Stormont — but then, who is?

Had she read herself into her brief properly she would have deflected the question from DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly. It is impossible to imagine her streetwise predecessors — say, Labour’s Mo Mowlam or Peter Mandelson — being so easily trapped, being so easily misused. They might have agreed with Ms Bradley’s statement, though that seems unlikely, but they would understand the need to be more diplomatic, to show empathy with both sides of the argument.

This understanding was not achieved by osmosis. It came after a thorough review of all the complexities that seem eternally attached to that portfolio. Had Ms Bradley the depth of detail any successful minister has at their fingertips she might better understand the disastrous potential Brexit and a hard border carry for the region.

She might even appreciate why an Irish Times poll found that NI voters are deeply dissatisfied with Theresa May’s government and, most significantly, with the DUP. More than three quarters are dissatisfied with the UK government. Two thirds — 67% — say the DUP is doing a bad job, while 69%, including 57% of those from a Protestant background, are dissatisfied with DUP leader Arlene Foster.

This dissatisfaction is a consequence of politicians not having a professional-level appreciation of what has gone before. The DUP and Tory collusion seems deaf to the hard lessons of the Home Rule crisis of a century ago.

Yet, despite the lessons and relevance of the past, especially the failings of the past, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Education Minister Joe McHugh have defended a decision to lock away evidence given by the victims of abuse in residential centres until near the end of this century.

The Cabinet has approved a bill restricting access to the records. The Retention of Records Bill 2019 will see records from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee placed in the National Archives of Ireland and sealed for a minimum of 75 years.

There are, naturally, complications and evidence, in some cases at least, was given on the basis of confidentiality. Despite that, the locking away seems another expression of the secrecy so very toxic in this country. Surely, the relevant ministers and their officials should have access to these documents so the failures of the past might not recur?

There is great sensitivity around these issues but it is once again difficult to dismiss the idea that some sort of cover-up is in play. There is no evidence for this suggestion but the vacuum created by the absence of these records will surely provoke suspicions. As we have seen so very often, hiding the truth away helps shield wrongdoing and its continuation.

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