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Time to grab nettle of our past in firm hand

(Denis Bradley, Irish News)

I grew up in short trousers.

So did all my friends. We quickly learned that if we brushed against a nettle, we got stung.

The adults liked to tell us young ones that if you grasped a nettle hard, it wouldn't sting. The problem was that they always told us that after we had already been stung and I have no memory of ever seeing an adult firmly grasp a nettle.

Sinn Féin recently brushed against the nettle that is the legacy of the last 35 years of death and they got badly stung. They should take some comfort from the knowledge that they are not the first. Everyone else who has been foolish enough or brave enough to get in amongst that particular legacy has also been stung.

The pity is that, having been stung, Sinn Féin took fright and ran for cover. If they had stood their ground, borne their pain and grasped the nettle even tighter, they would have done themselves and the rest of us a great favour.

The British government and Sinn Féin had agreed legislation to deal with what has been described as 'on the runs'.

When it reached the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill not alone dealt with those 40 or so republican men and women but anyone from the loyalist groups and the security forces retrospectively found guilty of similar illegalities.

It has aspects that are inappropriate and insensitive. It is not necessary to have an open-ended timeframe and the option of the accused to decline an appearance at the tribunal is insensitive and probably verging on the amoral.

But, on the whole, it is by far the best stab the government has made to grab this nettle. It is the closest thing to an amnesty that we have come.

It would have been better if the legislation had gone the whole hog and imposed an amnesty. It would have been better to have gone the distance and drawn a line that forced everyone, including the victims, to accept that the wrongs and the horrors of the Troubles have to be laid to rest.

As per usual the Northern Ireland Office was as subtle and as competent as a bull in a china shop.

And our former secretary of state Paul Murphy was no help. He was well warned that everyone, the political parties and all the victims groups, needed to be consulted and even confronted with the possibilities, the difficulties and ultimately the impossibility of dealing with and healing the sores of the past.

Instead, Paul Murphy flew off to South Africa. I am not totally clear what he learned there but I would have little doubt that he discovered that the South Africans were well and truly stung in their most honourable effort to embrace truth and reconciliation and I would suspect that he was advised to get rid of this nettle with as much dignity and propriety as possible.

Successive Irish governments have been no great help. They take a minimalist line.

Just do enough to keep the pressure on the British, while warding off the horror of more tribunals that would delve into their past.

It would be far healthier if all of us would admit that, so far, we have made a mess of this area of our history.

In the vacuum created by the absence of politics, we have allowed the sorrows and the hurts of the past to claim and sustain an undue influence.

The two unionist parties are clear about their opposition to the legislation that is now being discussed in the Commons, but they are far from clear what their own proposals are to deal with this mess.

They are relying on the SDLP to take the lead and make the proposals.

I think what they are proposing is well intentioned but I have no idea and I believe they have no idea what the consequences of their proposals are.

They talk about positive proposals for truth, recognition and remembrance that put victims' rights at their heart. Those are fine words but they could imply anything from a victims' remembrance centre to 400 or more inquiries.

And, in my opinion, to put victims at the heart of this issue is foolish and cruel.

It is not good therapy and it is worse politics.

The British should not remove the bill unless they are going to replace it with a far more radical one.

January 7, 2006

This article appeared first in the January 6, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News