There can be little doubt that dealing with the past is the most important and difficult issue facing former US State Department mandarin Richard Haass as he begins talks with local politicians about resolving Northern Ireland’s outstanding problems.
Who did what to whom and why during the more than thirty years of bombings and shootings are two questions which if left unanswered and unaddressed have the potential to block and even reverse Northern Ireland’s journey into a more tranquil and congenial future. As Amnesty International recently put it: 'Without the truth….Northern Ireland’s past will continue to cast a long, damaging shadow over its present and its future.'*
Dr Haass has been asked to unravel a Gordian knot that has defied the best efforts of many others and it is no exaggeration to say that his will probably be the last effort; failure will condemn the North to constantly relive and repeat its recriminations.
There is no disguising the obstacles that lie in his path. Two stand out, one created by the British government, the other by the erstwhile leadership of the Provisional IRA. Unless they are removed Dr Haass’ mission is doomed.
Northern Secretary, Theresa Villiers put the British hurdle in place at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Association at Cambridge where she said that any mechanism for dealing with the past would need to be consistent with the rule of law. The British government, she added, “will never put those who uphold the law on the same footing as those who seek to destroy it”.
Translated, that means the British reserve the right to jail people for offenses allegedly committed between 1968 and 1998 and will not participate in a truth recovery process that regards the misbehavior of British security forces and intelligence agencies as contributing to the Troubles.
If Ms Villiers’ statement represents the final British word, then it is really a veto on Dr Haass’s work. He might as well return now to East 68th Street and resume his job as president of the Council on Foreign Relations for the logic of the NI Secretary’s declaration is that the British regard themselves still at “war” with the IRA and do not wish to see the past properly dealt with. Her statement is the antithesis of what the peace process means.
Here is the reasoning for that claim. The IRA fought its “war” against the British mostly by killing or trying to kill soldiers and policemen and by planting bombs to cause commercial damage while the British fought the IRA mostly by trying to put its leaders and activists behind bars.
As a result of the peace process the IRA has stopped killing and bombing so its “war” is over; but the British still want to put IRA members in jail. Ergo, the British are still fighting the “war”, or reserve the right to do so, and as long as this is so who could blame IRA leaders and activists for not wanting to come forward to tell the truth about the past and their part in it?
As for British security force responsibility for the three decades and more of violence the record of unlawful killings, collusion, torture of detainees, intimidation of defense lawyers and repeated failure to properly investigate killings carried out by its forces speaks for itself. As Amnesty International put it: “Repeated failures by the UK government to hold security forces to account…..contributed to an environment of impunity and undermined the rule of law.” In other words the British helped to fuel the violence.
If the British government insists that any mechanism for dealing with the past must involve pursuing and jailing alleged paramilitary wrongdoers from the Troubles period while its own misdeeds escape scrutiny then Northern Ireland will never be able to put its past behind it and Dr Haass’s mission will fail.
But the British are not the only ones at fault. The two most prominent leaders of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness continue to deny or minimize their involvement in directing the IRA’s campaign. Mr Adams maintains that he was never in the IRA much less its most influential leader while Mr McGuinness claims he left the organization in 1974.
Neither assertion is at all credible and the problem for them, for Richard Haass and for Northern Ireland is that the level of cynicism about the two men’s denials is now so widespread and caustic that any attempt to deal with the past emerging from Dr Haass’s efforts that leaves these fictions intact will not only fail but deserve to fail.
Throughout many years reporting on the IRA, I have never been given a satisfactory explanation why Gerry Adams chose to actively deny his membership rather than do what all his predecessors did, which was to fudge his answer: to not tell the truth while never telling a lie, to make a non-denial denial.
He first adopted the outright denial approach back in the late 1970’s and I can only imagine that he did not then think he would ever be propelled to his current prominence and so claiming non-involvement may not have seemed such a big deal at the time.
But it has become a big deal, so much so that one must wonder if Gerry Adams himself regrets it. He was without doubt a military strategist of exceptional talent during the 1970’s, someone whose record bears comparison with Michael Collins, and he was pragmatic, courageous and tough – some would add ruthless – enough to later lead the Provisionals out of war and into dizzying political success to the extent that he and his party now stand on the threshold of sharing government power in both states.
Yet he will not be remembered for this remarkable life story but for his denial of what everyone knows to be the truth.
And it has been a self-destructive deception. There is no doubt in my mind, for instance, that his denial of their shared lives prompted both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price to angrily spill the beans on him with allegations that pursue him everywhere.
At this point Gerry Adams could be forgiven for feeling trapped by his years of dissembling, for feeling that if he now admitted the truth he would only make things worse.
But to believe that may be to badly misjudge human nature and the hunger for real peace in Ireland. If he was to come clean about his past membership of the IRA and apologize for the years of deception in the appropriate way, it is just as likely that his honesty would receive the warmest of welcomes and be greeted by sympathy, hope and relief. It would be difficult even for his enemies to respond begrudgingly.
Such a move could have a liberating impact on himself and help slice through the past’s Gordian knot, pressurizing all the other parties, not least Ms Villiers, to respond with equal generosity. It would remove at a stroke the most potent weapon wielded by his political opponents in the Dail, and it would guarantee his proper place in Irish history. It could be a game-changing move.
It remains to be seen whether Gerry Adams has the courage, imagination and foresight to take such a step but one thing is certain; no mechanism to deal with past can have any credibility as long as leaders like him continue to deny the defining part of their lives during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. No more than if Ms Villiers’ mean-spirited approach were also to prevail.
- * Amnesty International, ‘Northern Ireland: Time To Deal With The Past’, September 2013