Politics Over Truth

If you ever injected truth into politics you would have no politics - Will Rogers

Reflecting back over a number of pieces written on truth and reconciliation in the North the one conclusion I am being pushed to is that it will be a long time, if ever, before either take root there. While a wide range of reasons may help explain why this is so, it does seem inescapable that one crucial factor not to be overlooked is the continuing presence on the political scene of those considered perpetrators. Not until they become fossilised curiosities, a subject of cultural memory rather than an open sore of grievance, will the ground settle firmly enough to allow something as robust as truth or reconciliation to take roots that hold.

The unionists and the British have an advantage here. Most of their key players in fuelling and maintaining the conflict have either shuffled off elsewhere or have assiduously covered their tracks so that people don’t place them at the heart of violent political conflict. Who, apart from a few with a sense of history, recall the role of Peter Robinson as leader of the paramilitary wing of the DUP? Who even speaks of the DUP having been linked to an armed militia? Conversely, Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA don’t seem to fade with the passing of time? The discourse of the chattering classes has Sinn Fein alone being gradually weaned away from political violence. The other main players are treated as if they were uncontaminated by it.

This places a handicap on Sinn Fein. Its leaders’ reluctance to stand aside from the positions of power they have wielded for decades is an impediment to the party lending forward momentum to the call for truth.

We need look no further than a claim in the Irish News by Tom Kelly that the attendance by Gerry Adams at the launch of Eames-Bradley was ‘unnecessarily provocative.’ What reconciliation emerged from the allegation thrust into his face by a woman that he had murdered her parents? It is not necessary to be critical of Gerry Adams, or to subscribe to the view that he was involved in the killings referred to by his accuser, to appreciate that he is seen by many as having been a chief victim maker. Moreover his continued denial that he was ever a member of the IRA merely mocks the concept of truth. It signals to others from whom truth is being demanded on behalf of the many republican and nationalist victims of the conflict, that there is no need on their part to respond; that Sinn Fein is not serious on the matter but merely grandstanding. All of which ensures that Bairbre de Brun’s criticism of Eames-Bradley doesn’t make it over the first barrier to truth hurdle: ‘Eames-Bradley is proposing the creation of a legacy commission appointed by the British government to report to the British government who was a primary combatant in the conflict.’

She is right of course. The British have been a primary combatant in the conflict. But so too was her boss. That however seems a truth that she can not acknowledge. It also means that truth in reality has to be either parked or manipulated into an organised truth, the latter being the option most likely to be favoured by those who prefer power before people.

The current Sinn Fein position of trying to appear all things to all people has a paralysing consequence – everybody will demand everything from you. The party’s abandonment of its earlier demand for peace with justice in exchange for peace with reconciliation has left it anchorless. Had it continued to stand four-square as a partisan defender of the community it represents then its calls for truth about the role of the British state in the armed conflict would not sound so hollow. But because it wants its leaders to pose as statesmen, floating above the normal run of the mill politics, it has become susceptible to demands that it can never deliver. It is the role played by current Sinn Fein leaders in the armed conflict that acts as the ubiquitous tripwire preventing any smooth journey away from the past. They cannot afford the truth to come forth. Do they really want society and the wider world to know what operational decisions the deputy first minister took in his former job as IRA chief of staff? Does the DUP even want anybody to know? Or at this stage the Brits? Not a chance. And if neither the Brits nor the DUP want the truth to come out about the role of Martin McGuinness there is not the slightest possibility that they will want it out about any of their own. It is clear what the trade off will be; how little the organised truth will resemble what truly happened.

For Sinn Fein the difficulty is further illuminated by the challenges that force it to adopt a stance that to most observers appears wholly inconsistent. It calls for openness about British state complicity in the deaths of Irish citizens but has never seriously made any demands for transparency in the case of the British spy, Freddie Scappaticci. When first exposed in the media six years ago the prominent British agent found to his delight that the party he had spied on was proving more loyal to him than he ever was to it. It is a strange moral universe where his activities in collusion with the British state against Irish people are judged to be somehow less reprehensible than Brian Nelson’s.

All of which underlines how a hierarchy of victims is always at play, how it functions, demotes and discriminates. In Sinn Fein’s hierarchy some victims of the British state deserve justice and their cases should be fully investigated. Other victims, such as those awarded the unwanted status by Scappaticci and his ilk merit much less clarity. They are undeserving victims because politics intervenes and it is not politically expedient for the truth about Scappaticci to emerge because of the damage it might do to senior figures in Sinn Fein. If there really was no such hierarchy all victims would have the same rights.

Sinn Fein’s present position is in constant need of being fire-walled from the past of its leaders. History here is written from the perspective of the present. With such leaders at the helm the future will be as truthful as the fictitious past.


  1. I have been pondering the idea of "Truth & Reconciliation in the North, and I am not sure that it is a concept that I agree with. I believe that ultimately "Truth & Reconciliation" leads to the need for "Truth & Justice" and it is my belief that if the two sides of the community end up looking for justice they will be sorely disappointed.
    Perhaps it is an over simplification, but for the most part, victims of the troubles know what happened to their family member, so what is to be gained from the exact details, such as who perpetrated the act, and specifially why it was carried out. Knowing all these details will never bring a lost loved one back. Equally, if the victims' families are looking for apologies they will also be disappointed, as it is unlikely that they will come from the British Government, and equally unlikely to come from the other players as well. Whilst some might express regret for the loss of life, few people I know would actually apologize for their actions. For me the best resolution would be for all sides to acknowledge the hurt they have caused and then draw a line in the sand and move on.

  2. Kathy, I think it is a difficult one to deal with. If families feel the need to know the details it is hard to argue against them. Bringing a loved one back is not the issue for them.

  3. During the buring of Long Kesh in 1974, did any Loyalist's help injured republicans?