It’s very hard to try to be objective about such an emotive topic. But let’s try to examine the impact on Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and, the peace process of the BBC’s powerfully moving documentary about The Disappeared.
To date Sinn Fein has performed well post conflict: it has usurped the SDLP to become the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and it has made significant gains in the Republic, transforming itself there into a major political force.
Ousr was an especially squalid and dirty conflict in which many innocents died, and it was fought with a ferocity and ruthlessness that it is easy to forget in more normal times. Unlike most conflicts, however it did not end with one side victorious and the other defeated, regardless of how various elements tried to spin it at the time.
Essentially the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise, and underpinning it was an agreement that the various paramilitary groupings would cease activity, and in exchange the security forces would cease to pursue them. As part of the deal many paramilitary prisoners were released early from prison.
One of the main architects of this deal was Gerry Adams, who, along with his allies in the party persuaded the republican movement to support the new political structures that the Good Friday Agreement put in place.
Since then Sinn Fein have entered government at Stormont, and as referenced become an important force in the Republic, campaigning on opposition to austerity cuts, a popular agenda there.
The future has looked positive and we’ve all been encouraged not to dwell on the past.
However, there is a big problem with that. If you were a victim of the conflict and suffered serious injury or bereavement, your suffering is just as much in the present as it was in the past.
And as the government at Stormont geared up to celebrate a decade of centenaries, to encourage us to respect each others’ pasts, there were those, including myself, who pointed out that this would also lead to the marking of anniversaries some would rather forget about: the Abercorn Bombing, Bloody Friday, Greysteel, Loughinisland and the Shankill Road bomb: the list goes on and involves members of all communities.
These events were all in the past, but they are still being experienced today, many of them were atrocities of the most appalling nature.
Recently there have been renewed allegations of security force linkages with loyalist paramilitaries. We are all familiar with the allegations being raised against Gerry Adams and some of his colleagues in Sinn Fein.
They may be carrying out different roles these days, but the past still hangs around them.
In Adams’ case this is a double difficulty. In the case of The Disappeared he has made several appeals for more information about those still missing, but he steadfastly denies his membership of the IRA and the role he played in the dark days of the past.
This does not just damage his credibility with political opponents, as the BBC documentary clearly showed it has also caused resentment amongst republicans.
But there is a problem here. Republican ex combatants have a simple rule in talking about their activities. If they were convicted they will talk about their actions, if not they won’t. And the reason for that is simple enough: were they to admit to committing serious crimes they would be liable to arrest, prosecution, trial and imprisonment.
So Adams is in a difficult position. He simply won’t change his stance when asked about IRA membership and his early days in the Republican movement. But nobody believes him, and in the Republic in particular that is a very serious problem amongst new voters, attracted to Sinn Fein by their economic policies.
And as far as dealing with the past goes, that’s not possible when some of those involved won’t speak openly about their roles, indeed lie about them: that’s a serious problem for Sinn Fein as it is very hard to have a dialogue where one side is not engaging properly: it also undermines their calls for investigations into alleged outrages committed by the security forces.
So this is probably the most difficult problem of all faced by Richard Haass and his team as they attempt to negotiate a way forward. Many have called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation process. That would require an amnesty from prosecution. Are unionists going to agree to that? It seems unlikely.
In the meantime we need to bring more focus to the victims themselves. By this I mean bringing more practical help. Let’s take those seriously injured as just one example. Many of these people need lifelong care, and help with both physical and mental conditions arising from injury and trauma.
Yet for those who were hurt in the early 1970s, the compensation they received has long since run out, for many their carers are now elderly and they are at crisis point as they face up to the rigours of Welfare Reform. Surely all parties and all persuasions could at least agree on this: that notwithstanding who knew what and when and who exactly did what to whom, whilst this debate is raging, an even more pressing issue is not being fully addressed: ensuring that all victims have the right level of care and support from the State. It’s the least we can do.