Marching Back to the Past

Storms are predicted for tomorrow and Saturday, so it is likely that the riders in the Giro d’Italia are lashed with rain and buffeted by wind as they battle across Northern Ireland in the first leg of their race.

Somehow that seems apt. There may be no election posters on the route. Derelict shops have been painted so they look like thriving businesses and we’re trying to put on a sparkly new face to the world.

Sadly nobody will be taken in. The arrest of Gerry Adams and the dreadful agony of the McConville family, and all those who mourn the disappeared, have created more global headlines than a cycle race ever will.

The “serious crime suite” at Antrim police station is still a bigger pull than the glories of the Causeway Coast and when the race moves on, the posters and flags will be back, and instead of looking forward to a better future, we’ll be plunged right back into our squalid past.

We’ve become prisoners of it now, prisoners of past atrocities, injustice and a mutual hatred that is primeval in intensity.

Some of us have been warning for years now that a failure to deal adequately with the past, and most specifically with victims of a dirty and vindictive conflict would come back to haunt us.

Our political leaders had the opportunity to do that last Autumn, and they came very close to doing so in the Haass talks. But all the progress then has faded away and we have been rocked by the On the Runs controversy, the Secretary of State’s refusal to hold an inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre and the arrest of Adams on foot of the Boston College tapes.

So we now find ourselves in a position where, unless victims’ issues are urgently addressed, we could easily find ourselves descending right back into the past, with a collapse of political structures and a descent into street disturbances and an unravelling of all that has been achieved. This is not scaremongering. A peace process is just that, a process, and the process is stalled.

In order to make sense of it all we have to go back to the Good Friday Agreement and the deal that underpins it. Effectively a stalemate had been reached. The IRA towards the end of the conflict had become riddled with informers and incapable of achieving its aims through violence. The security forces could contain but not defeat the IRA. So the IRA decided it was no longer going to shoot and bomb, and in exchange paramilitaries were released from prison, the Army started to withdraw, new political structures were created, some with north south elements and the RUC disappeared and was replaced by PSNI.

These arrangements were voted on on both sides of the border and approved by a majority in both jurisdictions and as part of the deal the Republic withdrew its constitutional claim to the north.

So there was no clear cut victor, the agreement was a compromise which brought the conflict to an end. However it did so at a great price to surviving victims and the families of all those who had died. For many years they were effectively ignored, yes there was sympathy, but the prevailing view was that we all had to “move on”.

Sadly however, for victims whatever happened is not just a matter for the past. Amputated limbs do not grow back, deceased loved ones do not return, their victimhood is a present reality.

The Executive has embarked on official support for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of critical events that have shaped our history, these will be going on for several years to come. However more recent anniversaries have gained far more media coverage: the 40th anniversaries of terrible things that happened in the early 1970s and these have unlocked the previously silent voices of those who suffered. So the screens have been filled with grainy footage of carnage and those who are still struggling to come to terms with what happened all those years ago. There’s been so much of this already, and there is much, much more to come.

The injustice of what happened is a cancer which is eating at us today. There is no cure for it because you can’t erase the past. Those involved deny all knowledge of their roles, and victims therefore do not even get to know what really happened, who did what and why.

For politicians victims are used in a sick game of whataboutery. For Sinn Fein effective amnesty for republicans is part of the Good Friday Agreement but not for agents of the State.

For others former paramilitaries should be pursued to the ends of the earth, but not those who were involved in collusion, or played God by allowing atrocities to take place so as not to compromise informers.

We are inexorably marching back to the past.