Talks on dealing with the past continue. It feels draining to even write that sentence.
The matter of dealing with the past is often presented as enormous. The big question that never finds agreement and causes unending discord. It’s been called everything from difficult, to intractable, to toxic. Think beyond those sound bites though and you hear how this discourse contributes to this society’s never ending ability to deny victims and survivors their rights.
It’s worth remembering the journey of this debate.
In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement made mention of victims in a sentence of acknowledgement and intention of providing support. Anything contentious like answering questions, owning up to policies and practices, or complying with international human rights standards were kicked down the road.
But the past kept bubbling up. First with piecemeal inquiries into Bloody Sunday, Rosemary Nelson, Billy Wright et al and then PSNI setting up an historic investigations unit. This intended to examine all killings of the conflict. Except that it operated illegally and deliberately covered up killings by the state. Meanwhile the Police Ombudsman examined some of RUC’s wrongdoing and released a few historic fact finding reports into collusion in a small number of cases.
Failures to deliver to human rights compliant processes, and families’ resilience and commitment to the truth framed the proposals from the inevitable although belated initiatives on how to comprehensively deal with the past. Eames Bradley, Haass O’Sullivan and the Stormont House Agreement,. To a large extent, the emergent proposals did look like rights compliant processes.
It is worth remembering the human experience behind these piecemeal, failed processes. For families who had no trust in the PSNI effectively investigating the killings of their loved ones, but engaged with a HET investigation that was happening with or without them, when it all turned out to be acting illegally the same family was left picking up the pieces of even more harm caused by this ineffective process on top of the reawakened trauma.
But that is not to infer anything other than the incredible strength, and determination of those families. The experience of these families, and their pursuit of truth, contributes to our understanding of our past and reaffirms our peace and the strength of our institutions.
There is no room for discussions now to deliver anything else that causes more harm. All victims, affected by all actors must have the security that their rights to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence will be honoured this time.
Because the Stormont House Agreement fairly much got it right there are only two issues to be got over.
1. Funding inquests, which is the British Government’s responsibility so really they just need to cough up.
2. The British Government trying to control the information families get in investigation reports. Their form of control is all-embracing and really is about state impunity. Impunity from prosecution and impunity from their role in the conflict being made public and open to scrutiny.
These are narrow specific questions, not big, insolvable issues as presented so conveniently and deliberately in some media columns.
Will this government commit to maximum disclosure to victims in a process that honours their rights, or will they continue to construct processes whose sole aim is to safeguard Britain’s colonial policies and policy makers?
If these talks do not deliver we will know what choice they made.