Dealing With The Past Needs Truth From British And IRA

Ed Moloney with a piece on the issue of the past that continues to dog the North's politics. It initially featured in the  Belfast Telegraph on 8 October 2013.

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.

Richard Haass - new US Special Envoy to N
Richard Haass – new US Special Envoy to NI

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”.
Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers
Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers, imposing a veto on the Haass talks?
 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.

Gerry Adams, claims of an IRA-free life just not credible
Gerry Adams, claims of an IRA-free life just not credible

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


  1. Ed Moloney still wanting Gerry Adams to say he was a member/Leader
    of the IRA despite it being a two year prison sentence if he did so-
    Moloney has failed over the years to bring Adams down or even to graze him so he wants Adams to fall on his own sword-pathetic reporting-

    Did not see many/any MI5/6/Brit generals name in his report either-
    That were involved in the war-pathetic reporting-
    Moloney can tell a lot of truth himself about want went on but he has a veto himself called protecting his sources-journalists can keep Quiet but everyone else has to tell-pathetic reporting-

  2. Michael, Can I ask does your party support the rule of law, and do you agree that the law should be applied evenly and without prejudice to everyone in society?

  3. Snowtorch-

    Yes-Sinn Fein and myself supports the rule of law in the 32-

    When a woman went into what she took to be her local police station in 1987 to report a Rape crime those in police in charge and those who interviewed her tried
    to recruit Aine instead of dealing
    with Rape-which the RUC did not see as a crime in 1987-so its a little wonder that few people supported such a force-

    By the way there are not many reporters calling for those RUC members to be named and shamed-so many hacks were bought up in the 70s/ 80s/ 90s who have now become leaders in the media-its no wonder the media frontal attack is not against the police who turned their back on rape-

  4. Michaelhenry,

    I think if you read this again you will see that Ed hasn't called for him to admit it but merely to desist from lying about it.

  5. Nelson Mandela was a great man for the skill of not admitting things. He avoided issuing denials when he didn't want to admit something. Whether it was true or not he masterfully avoided admitting or denying it. I don't say this as a bad thing. I admire Nelson very much, one of the best.

    I also love his old African adage "Talk gently and carry a big stick".

  6. First (still not sure) where to post this..Under the index, 'Informers, Catholic child abuse, human rights, investigative journalism, civil liberties, Jimmy Savile, Provisional IRA. It covers all of them and more...So I decided to place it in dealing with the past..

    Even half of these stories are true, then a lot of people have simply more than blood on their hands..

    Take Brendan 'Ruby' Davidson. ...Republican sources say Davidson was secretly filmed by British undercover surveillance soldiers sexually abusing a teenage boy in the sauna of the Maysfield Leisure Centre in south Belfast and blackmailed into becoming an informant..

    Seems it was just more than just Republicans covering up child abuse, rape..Why didn't the BA or other simply take a child rapist of the streets? I wonder if uncovering the truth about the 'Dirty War' can get any murkier...

  7. The sad thing for me is, most of the former repubicans who opposed the sectarian killings, child abuse , taking seats in Leinster House etc were powerless to stop it. Most were locked up 24hrs a day. Unfortunatly you are all getting lumped together. I stand to be corrected..But I don't think former provisional IRA volunteers who put their lives on the line, were prepared to go the whole nine yards on hunger strike for etc..Did so to protect paedophiles any more than you supported killing innocent protestants..That is one circle I'm glad, I don't have to try and square...

  8. Frankie,

    the lot of it needs the lid lifted on it.

  9. It looks to me at least Anthony that when Brendan Hughes said "Belfast was rotten" was closer to the truth than most within the PRM will ever admit to.

  10. Looks like (on the surface at least) Belfast was more rotten than Brendan Hughes believed it was..