You need the truth to find reconciliation – A personal experience by Conall McDevitt

Conall McDevitt with a piece in which he addresses the vexed question of reconciliation through a prism of his personal experience of post-Franco Spain. It originally appeared on Eamonn Mallie's blog on 8th October 2012.

We are not all to blame for the troubles. That is the first message I want to send those like Sinn Fein Chairperson, Declan Kearney who are suggesting that we all, somehow, have to share responsibility for what happened. What we do all share is responsibility for promoting reconciliation and building a new Ireland.

The second message I would like to send all those who have been talking about reconciliation is that real reconciliation and truth are two sides of the same coin. You cannot get one without the other. Former IRA and Sinn Fein leaders seem to suggest that this is not so. That is a disingenuous approach which will do nothing to transform our island or heal the divisions of the past.

I make this point because like many people in this part of Ireland, my life experience and family history have been shaped by the failure, over the past century, to build a reconciled island at peace with itself. I have also been part of Spain’s transition, another country which has struggled to find reconciliation following the Franco era.

I was born in Dublin six months after Bloody Sunday. I say this because my early years were lived against the backdrop of the early years of the troubles and a constant sense of conflict, seen through the lenses of a family which was, and largely remains, republican and socialist. We never supported the provisional IRA campaign in the North but we never trusted the British government either.  That mistrust extended often to successive Irish governments’ approach to Northern Ireland.

When the recession of the early 1980s bit hard, my family was not unaffected. With my father’s business lost, we decided to start afresh in Spain and arrived there on Good Friday 1982.
Felipe Gonzalez

Felipe Gonzalez was elected Prime Minister of Spain on 28th October 1982. I remember well my dad pointing out the PSOE (Partido Socialista y Obrero Espanol) billboards that summer. The slogans were ‘socialismo es libertad’ – ‘socialism is freedom’ and ‘por el cambio’ – ‘for change’.  At last he would live under a socialist government; something which he would talk about incessantly and infectiously. It worked. I was hooked. That election turned me into a ten year old social democrat, something I remain today 30 years on.

The sense of hope was palpable. The new beginning was everywhere. Looking back at some of the media coverage from that time, the whole of Europe was celebrating the change and the new Spain. The architects of the transition which had given Spain a new constitution and democracy could rest in the knowledge of a job well done.

It takes a ten year old about a year to become fully fluent in another language. I know because I learnt this the hard way. For months I could only follow the maths class. But by September 83 things made sense and friendships began to form.

The father of one of my friends knew all too well the perilous cost of principled activism in Franco’s Spain. He had spent time in jail in the 60’s for ‘political activity’ and was a supporter of the Spanish Communist party which I am told recruited 200,000 people in the year after it was legalised in 1979. He was also angry. It took me several years to get to the bottom of his angst. His dad was disappeared during the civil war in Malaga. One of an estimated 4000 to have been killed and whose bodies were never returned. He welcomed the transition of course. He loved the opportunities Francisco and I would have in the new Spain but hated the price his family was paying. They were just one of hundreds of thousands of families being told to forget by the new state.

La ley de la amnestia 1977 (Amenesty Law) was described by a Basque nationalist deputy during the parliamentary debate as an amnesty ‘from everybody to everybody, a forgetting from everybody to everybody’. As Madeline Davis reminds us in her paper ‘Breaking the Pacto del Olvido’ the law was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Spanish Parliament and was seen as a means of pardoning, forgetting and reconciling in the new Spain.  It secured the release of all political prisoners and prevented the prosecution of Francoist repressors.

Throughout the eighties Francisco’s dad was a voice in the wilderness. But as the nineties dawned the family began to ask questions. Slowly the new generation which had been given such opportunity during the transition were looking for the truth about their loved ones. The collective amnesia was wearing off for some although the political establishment was still not ready to revisit the compromises made in 1977. Felipe Gonzalez built schools, hospitals and a welfare system. His government kick started an economy and put Spain at the heart of Europe. It was a great decade for the many and for the young.

The disgusting dirty war being perpetrated against Basque separatists was still a secret dirty war and the ‘Pacto del olvido’ held tight.

SDLP’s Conall McDevitt MLA

I returned to Ireland in 1990 and, as Vice-President of the European Community Organisation of Socialist Youth (ECOSY), I first met John Hume at a PSOE election rally in Barcelona alongside Felipe Gonzalez.  Hume received a rapturous reception. His message of peace, truth and reconciliation, delivered to Catalans in perfect French resonated with the new Spain and Barcelona basking in the afterglow of a very successful Olympic games the previous year.

Little did we know that within five years we here in Ireland would be facing our own transition and the possibility of a new beginning. In Spain, Francisco became a doctor, the first ever graduate in his family and testament to the opportunities afforded to our generation.

In the early noughties the families of the disappeared found their voice. It happened somewhat accidentally after a journalist, Emilio Silva, from Madrid, whose granddad had been disappeared organised the excavation of a mass grave at Priaranza del Bierzo in Leon. It captured the imagination and secured the support of some on the left in politics. Within a year ARMH (la Asociacion para la Recuperacion de la Memoria Historica) was established and so began a process which would ultimately challenge the Pacto del Olvido and some of the central compromises at the heart of the Spanish transition.

What happened in Spain is not that Spaniards forgot the past but that a political decision was made to build a narrative which sought to suppress or de-emphasises memories which could be seen as destabilising or threatening of consensus.  They promoted the idea of reconciliation but the meaning of reconciliation was seriously skewed by the residual power of the right wing.

Bluntly, the price of peaceful handover of power would be silence about the past.

Whether you think about the idea of forgetting and some in Ireland think a lot of the idea, the fact is the Spanish experience has been challenged on two levels which are worth reflecting on from our position here in this northern region of Europe.

Following a referral by the ARNH the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances found in Aug 2002 that the Spanish political and judicial authorities lacked an interest in the cases of 30,000 disappeared believed to lie in mass graves around Spain. This ‘perpetuates discrimination against that part of the population who were considered defeated as a result of the civil war and constitutes non-compliance with its obligation to investigate and to guarantee a right to the truth’.

General Franco

Second, it spurred a group of progressive Spanish judges to challenge the very basis of the pacto. They argued that Spain had obligations under international law and under international human rights law and were  obliged to adhere to theses obligations.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to debate the extent to which the Spanish experience marks a new trend in so called memory politics but as an SDLP MLA, an Andalucian and an Irishman whose life has been touched by the survivors of Francoist, IRA, Loyalist and State murder I am firmly of the view that forgetting is not an answer.

The majority of those whom the IRA killed were Catholic yet they are practically forgotten in our peace process. Like Francisco’s family they are being told to get with the new beginning, to cherish the opportunities peace will create for us all. They are asked to accept a consensus that denies them the right to truth.

The case of Anne Travers crystallises this in many people’s consciousness. Her quiet dignity as she campaigned against the appointment of Mary McArdle as a special adviser, when it was known that Ms McArdle was involved in the murder of Anne’s sister Mary, has been inspirational to many who believe that victims of our troubled past should not have further trauma revisited on them and their families. She also represents that forgotten majority of Catholic victims of the IRA who, as much as any affected group in the North, are demanding and deserve the truth as a major step towards reconciliation.

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
and kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son.

Michael Longley’s poem ‘Ceasefire’ quoted the Iliad and sought to capture the complexity of peace.
Many argue that we have peace but reconciliation is of course a further state, one which Spain is still struggling to find and which we must work urgently to achieve knowing that truth and reconciliation and inextricably are linked and mutually dependant.


  1. Imagine the hue and cry there would have been in Spain and internationally if 18 years after Francos demise several hundred of the worst offenders in the security services of that regime were rehired for their "experience".

    In Ireland Republicans should just take the RUC re-emergence on the chin??

  2. David; I totally agree you. The re-emergence of the RUC was only a matter of time in my opinion since the so called disbandment was only a half baked exercise in 'keeping that other lot quiet'. And our leaders knew it and accepted it for what it was - all in the interests of the peace process of course.

    But I imagine that the unionist community feel exactly like this when they look at who is running their country.

  3. "sdlp mla an Andalucian and an Irishman" could have mentioned a brit subject in the pay of HM govt,how convenient it would be for all those nicccceee people if we just buried the past and got on with looking after wee norn iorn.

  4. The bold Conall whispers-

    " The majority of those whom the IRA killed were Catholic " but he forgot to say that the majority of them were english serving in the brit army when death caught up with them- me thinks that Conall spend to much time in the heat in spain to know about the truth here-

    " reconcillation and building a new Ireland " good to know that Conall wants a new united Ireland-
    wonder what - say goodbye to the stoops is in spanish-

  5. I do not like this piece at all and I share Marty contempt and anger. The only kind of truth and reconciliation process that people like Connell are really interested is one which places in the dock PIRA volunteers and those who commanded them.

    In post Franco Spain, and in post apartheid South Africa there was eventual agreement amongst the majority of the people about what originally caused the great tragedy both nations experienced. Franco's Fascist coup in Spain and Apartheid in SA.

    In the north today there is no common agreement of who is to blame and the responsibility of the UK State for the whole thing is being airbrushed out of history.

  6. According to the CAIN/Sutton Index Of Deaths, Republican paramilitaries killed 450 Catholics from the North during the Troubles. British security forces killed 303.

  7. Alfie-

    Those are not the numbers that Conall is on about- he said that the majority of whom the IRA killed were Catholic-whilst the true truth was that the majority of those killed by the Provos were brit- does it matter- well to Conall it does-but the truth always beats the defeated-

  8. I read this article out of curiosity to see what McDevitt was up to here and after his opening salvo of absolving the SDLP of all blame in the Troubles - when you sit back and call on Nationalists to support the rule of British Law, while those who are supposed to uphold the Law, the British Security Services are murdering your constituents then you qualify for a percentage of the blame of the violence…and that includes Hume, Mallon and McGrady…those who rode the gravy train….anyway, after that opening I realised that this was just clap trap SDLP anti-SF rhetoric, same old, same old, which ended with Anne Travers who came to the fore because Jim Allister realised the political points he could score here and as we read so did McDevitt who with the use of Mystic Meg’s paranormal predictions informed us that Travers was inspirational to many…….horse-shit in its purest political point scoring form - he hasn’t the decency to state how she was used by all the politicos who at every opportunity attack all things Republican… finish, McDevitt is using the grief and pain of relatives of only it would seem, Republican victims, to point score against Republicans….McDevitt you’re a disgrace.

  9. Michael,

    I think Conall McDevitt has got it wrong when he says that a majority of those killed by the Provos were Catholics. Indeed, according to the CAIN-Sutton Index of Deaths, the PIRA killed 1712 people. 344 were Catholics from Northern Ireland and 795 were Protestants from Northern Ireland. The residual 573 were not from Northern Ireland; while the religious breakdown of this group is not given by CAIN-Sutton, it is very unlikely that a majority of them were Catholics.

    In any event, it is more instructive to note that about 60 percent of the Provos' victims were members of the security forces and that the majority of these victims (about 54%) were actually from Northern Ireland.

  10. This is a stimulating article and we are glad for the author’s permission to reproduce it. The tension in it is strong but does not seem creative. Its critique of Spain is directed against the violence of the state. Even here I think it was much too weak on the homicidal violence of the Gonsalez regime which we now know quite a bit more about than we did during the days that the regime was in situ and Conall was living there and was enamoured toward it. That administration was behind a dirty war which involved killings and disappearances and torture.

    But when he moves to the northern conflict the focus is shifted from state actors to republican ones. As Niall asks why the Travers killing? There was no justification for killing Mary Travers that I can see but does her death have more significance because the Provos caused it? You would imagine that for the first part of the article to be consistent with the second part the focus would have remained on the violence of the state. Not that there is intrinsically anything wrong with examining non state violence given that, in the case of the Provisionals what they have signed up to fundamentally delegitimizes their own campaign and allows the opening through which the sort of critique waged by Connall McDevitt can be made.

    The issue of percentage of blame is fine but would be much more robust if we were able to quantify it.

    Marty, I actually think it is the opposite here. Rather than forget the oast the article seems to suggest we revisit it. The problem is as Organised Rage points out it is more focussed on the republican actions. I know the old RUC mentality is pushing this but there is also an element of the revenge of the Catholic middle class. Look at the line up of figures making it to the front line in the legal judicial end – Barra McCrory, John Larkin, Nuala O’Loan, Seamus Tracey, Declan Morgan.

    Mick/Organized Rage

    I think the GFA was a glove fit solution to an internal conflict problem and it completely extracted the Brits out of serious culpability. It became a two tribes problem that found its own natural solution.


    I think the opposite was the case here. Rather than argue for the past to be forgotten the point was made that it should not be. The problem is that when we moved to look at the past, the emphasis was on the republican dimension and the prism we were offered to look through was the killing of Mary Travers.