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Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Hard swallow, fixed smile

(by Liam Clarke, News Letter)

Who could fail to be moved by the dignity of Arlene Foster and Michael Gallagher as they swallowed hard to come to terms with the legacy of the recent troubles?

Foster spoke with dignity and moral authority when she welcomed the appointment of Sean Lynch; a man she believes was involved in planning the attempted murder of her father, to her local District Policing Partnership.

She recalled how her father, an RUC reservist, had crawled into the kitchen with blood pouring out of his head after being gunned down by the IRA as he looked after cattle near the family farmhouse in 1976. Foster might also have recalled how, as a schoolgirl, she had to get off the school bus after a bomb was discovered under it.

"For years, Sean Lynch and others attacked the police and he has now come to the view that they are legitimate ... From a human perspective, however, it is very difficult."

Of course Foster was entirely right. No clear winners emerged from the recent conflict and nobody has been in a position to dictate terms.

Unionists are justified in saying that the IRA lost its war in the sense that it disarmed and shut up shop without achieving any of its stated objectives. However, the other side of it is that, even if they were under pressure, the Provos ended the use of violence voluntarily. They did so in return for concessions such as the release of prisoners and power sharing with the DUP, which they would have considered paltry or contemptible at the outset of their campaign.

In this sort of peace the hard swallow and the forced smile are positive civic virtues for those who have lived through the troubles; it is how we hand on a decent society to our children who hopefully will not repeat the mistakes of our generation. Lynch, like Foster, will have many mixed feelings with when he sits down with the PSNI. He will have some explaining to do to the grandchildren if they wonder what he did in the late twentieth century and what was achieved by it.

This awkward question of what it was all about may underlie the demand of some former prisoners, like Martina Anderson, for their criminal records to be formally expunged. That can't happen. It is one thing to accept that those with a violent past have moved on, but quite another to deny that their past ever occurred.

Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the largest single massacre of the entire conflict, pointed to the need for honesty when he said that with no hope of convictions for the Omagh bomb, the best he can hope for is the truth.

At this stage there can be no legal reckoning for what has happened. For most of the killings, the trail is quite cold and, even if, by some miracle, someone was convicted, they would serve a maximum of two years in jail. We only have to look at the case of the Historic Enquiries Team, 40% of whose members retired from their well paid jobs in the first year. Frustration at the prospect of bringing cases to conclusion must have played a part.

Gallagher believes that a cross border public enquiry would be the best way to get at the truth of Omagh. But there must be doubts in the mind of any reasonable person whether this will work. At the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, lies were told on all sides and, even after a horrendous financial cost, it's unlikely that there will be a clear conclusion to its interminable deliberations.

On the other hand, what happened need not be such a mystery. The HET has compiled what is known of every killing in the troubles years, whether it was carried out by paramilitaries or the security forces. This vast archive is housed in a single warehouse at Sprucefield.

The best way of bringing the truth to light while the victims are still alive may well be for a commission of experts, including historians and lawyers to sift this vast archive, interview those they thought relevant, and publish as much as possible on a without prejudice basis.

The downside is that such publication would hopelessly pollute the chances of any prosecution.

April 3, 2008

This article appeared in the April 3, 2008 edition of the News Letter.