Last Friday the new British Secretary of State James Brokenshire said he was thinking about a way forward on thematter of how to deal with the past.
He made the speech at Oxford University at the British Irish Association dinner where the great and the good are brought together once a year to eat a five course meal while they peruse the issues of the day.
James Brokenshire used the occasion to assure us of how much a “special part of the United Kingdom” ‘Northern Ireland’ is.
Then he proceeded to tell the assembled subjects, sorry – guests, how paramilitarism is a scourge and there was never any excuse for it. I suppose no one was there to interrupt and ask about his Government’s establishment of several groups of paramilitaires, their arming and directing of them. But perhaps I’m being too pedantic.
Then he got to the past and told everyone how he had met victims and was moved by them and how he feels that because “they are the ones who suffered the most”… “we have an obligation to do what we can to help them”. Now I’m going to be a little pedantic again. The obligation is not to see what you can do, because you have heard a sad story my friend.
The obligation is to meet your commitments under international law. We can begin with the European Convention’s Article 2 which demands that states secure investigations that are prompt, independent and transparent. We might then move to obligations under the International Conventions on Civil and Political Rights or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – all of which the British Government are signatories to.
And that would be if it were merely an issue of the victims of violations living in the jurisdiction. We also have the rather sizable matter of the British Government being an active agent in the conflict. Both for direct state killings, and a policy of collusion that ran throughout the conflict as consistently the water runs in the Lagan. And once we factor that in we have additional obligations.
Of course at this time of political nihilism when human rights are treated as inconveniences rather than hard won treasures, a quick Oxford side step of that reality might have been too tempting to avoid.
Victims are not on the political agenda because of some sense of benevolence due their experiences of horror and trauma. They are the holders of rights following violations at the hands of all of the actors. That distinction is no nuance. And they have never given up. And as such the idea that the British Government and its secretary of state might approach this issue in the role of the neutral benefactor is quite nauseating to be honest.
James Brokenshire also introduced the notion that any mechanism needs to be “proportionate”. Well that wasn’t the word used when state impunity was the order of the day and British soldiers engaged in murder were protected at all costs.
There is a legacy of impunity that will require redress and that does not appear “proportionate” but is utterly necessary. But sure the British Government know that only too well. Hence their attempt to dictate the playing field from the halls of Oxford on a September Friday night.