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

The victims of the Troubles have a right to the truth, if not justice

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Scarcely had Lord Eames and Denis Bradley delivered an interim report from their Consultative Group on the Past than Ian Paisley was giving a graphic illustration of how difficult the whole business is.

Paisley was the usual bundle of contradictions during his round of valedictory interviews on Friday morning. On the one hand, he wanted to draw a line under the past. On the other, he is planning two books to give his account of what happened.

He chided Seamus McKee of the BBC for looking back too much when McKee asked him if he had anything to regret about his past opposition to accommodation. "I don't think we should be living in the past" said Paisley, who loves commemorations and recently delivered a long history lecture at the opening of the Boyne heritage centre. "I don't think we will get anywhere by delving back and saying 'if we had done this and if we had done something else'. We have to live in the present" he insisted.

He seems at times to be borrowing the language of his old sparring partner Gerry Adams who is also fond of telling interviewers to look forward not back. Both men are popular speakers at commemorations.

Sinn Féin and the DUP claim victory from the peace process, even though the current outcome is one that both would have regarded as defeat at most points in the conflict. Neither of them actually won and since history is normally written by the victors that leaves growing unease about what the past may hold.

Bradley gave an example last Thursday when he asked how it would help an elderly and grieving mother to be told that her martyred son was an informer. The suggestion seems to be that the truth would be so painful that it might be best avoided.

He and Eames talk of the need for the state and the various paramilitary groups to apologise for wrongdoing, for the loyalists to disarm and for all sides to vow that the conflict should never be repeated. They also hint at increased practical help for the injured and traumatised.

While these are important suggestion, for many of those who bear the physical or emotional scars of bereavement, disability or trauma, it is impossible to simply draw a line under the Troubles. Victims' groups who were likely to make this point were barred from the Eames/Bradley gathering, presumably because they would have objected to what was being said.

In the absence of a victor the status of victim is hotly disputed. Claiming the status for yourself and denying it to others seems, Eames and Bradley said, like "a way of scoring political points" and even of "perpetuating the pain rather than healing it."

While there is something in what they say but the desire of groups such as Relatives for Justice and Families Acting For Innocent Relatives, which were excluded from the meeting, cannot simply be ignored. The whole issue of truth and victimhood deserves to be worked through.

It is tempting to reserve the title of victim for the innocent but the picture is so complicated that it is often difficult to draw a clean and consistent line between victims and perpetrators. To take one example: Lenny Murphy, the leader of the UVF's Shankill butcher gang, was suspected of involvement in 19 murders but had not been convicted of any when he was shot dead by the IRA as he sat peacefully in his car posing an immediate threat to nobody. If his killers were caught the charge would be murder and he would be described as the victim of the crime.

Some people joined paramilitaries as a result of being attacked or bereaved. Were they victims to begin with? Do they then lose that status if it they have injure someone afterwards?

If an active republican is killed by loyalists, is his status of victim affected if it later emerges that he was a police agent? And what about their widows and orphans – are they entitled to be called victims, or are they guilty by association?

It seems clear that Eames and Bradley will avoid these issues by calling all those who suffered "victims and survivors" without passing moral judgement. This view is currently contested by many but may eventually gain general acceptance. As we probe the past, more and more grey areas will appear and categories like good and bad, justified and unjustified may seem less relevant.

Out of 3,268 killings being reviewed by the PSNI's Historic Enquiries Team, 1,800 are unsolved murders and a further 52 are deaths as a direct action of a police officer, many of them disputed. Some of those who suffered from crimes will turn out to have colluded in others.

Much of what we want to know about the past is contained in a huge warehouse – the size of the largest B&Q store – near Sprucefield in Lisburn, which holds the HET's archives. Besides police, army and MI5 files they have collated press cuttings, the claims of paramilitary groups, the files of official investigations like the Stevens Inquiries and over 3,000 books.

Despite all this effort, the PSNI believes the team will do well to press even a handful of charges, never mind secure convictions. As Eames and Bradley point out, the trail is cold after so many years and exhibits and individual items of evidence have seldom been preserved to modern standards.

This vast database contains the best answers we are likely to get to many of the unanswered questions of the Troubles. It may not be evidence that would stand up in court beyond reasonable doubt, but it is the raw material of history.

Eames and Bradley and society in general must decide whether we want to face up to the secrets held in the database, or whether we prefer to close the door and move on. If we leave it as it is, this material will become available only when those who care about it are dead and it will have only an antiquarian interest to future generations.

If we opt to face the facts we will need a process of sifting and assessment by an independent body. To command public confidence such a body would need real teeth and maybe an international element to decide difficult cases.

A panel of experts would need to take the role of the victors in writing our history, publishing it as a coherent narrative without passing judgement. Strict rules of official secrecy would have to be suspended, though some details might need to be withheld for a fixed period to protect the lives of those in danger of revenge attacks.

The panel could have a remit to review any unpublished information at regular intervals – every five years, say- to see if the time was right to release it.

The sort of people needed to take these decisions could include historians to draw the narrative together as well as lawyers and security experts to protect the rights of individuals and groups in so far as possible. It would also need the participation of victims and survivors representatives to keep the needs of those who have suffered to the forefront of discussions.

The bulk of what is needed would be in state records held by the HET, but the body could also bring strong moral pressure on paramilitaries and individuals to fill in the gaps. They might even name and shame those who have refused to co-operate in the search for truth.

One effect of such a programme of publication would be to compromise any hope of prosecution. It would mean a trade off between truth and justice.

Eames and Bradley seemed to hint in their speeches last week that they will instead limit disclosure for fear of re-opening old wounds. On the other hand, they speak of abandoning the courts as a method of getting at the truth. But that could be the worst of all possible worlds, one in which the hunt for both truth and justice would be abandoned.

June 2, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 1, 2008.