Rows over Northern Ireland's past 'poisoning' its future

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI Political Correspondent

image captionThe Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was Northern Ireland's roadmap out of the Troubles, but it has not provided an escape from the past.

Indeed, perpetual arguments about the past are poisoning the present and threatening the future.

The problem is there is no agreement on the solution. There is no single solution. And there is no pain-free solution.

"If we spend our time trying to say: 'Can we find the one thing that will deal with the past?', I don't think we will find that one thing," Professor Brandon Hamber told BBC One's The View programme.

Prof Hamber is originally from South Africa and now works for the University of Ulster's International Conflict and Research Institute.

He spoke to The View as the fall-out continued from the attorney general's suggestion that, perhaps, it is time to halt all investigations and prosecutions of Troubles-related offences since 1998.

Although there has been only a handful of prosecutions since the Good Friday Agreement, John Larkin's comments have caused great controversy, particularly among victims seeking justice, as well as truth.

While Mr Larkin did not use the word amnesty, that could be the practical effect of such a new law.

Prof Hamber said Mr Larkin's comments cannot be ignored, particularly in the context of unresolved cases from the Troubles.

image captionDenis Bradley said the past was a "cancer" in society

"One does have to consider the challenge that for some victims they are going to die before they get justice," he said. "(That) does need to be talked about. What he is raising needs to be talked about."

Mr Larkin went further than the recommendations from the 2009 Eames-Bradley report on dealing with the past.

Those recommendations were over-shadowed by rows about money for victims, rows about who is really a victim, and the competence of a legacy commission.

That commission would have ended the piece-meal approach to the past, by providing a one-stop alternative to public inquiries.

The body, it was suggested, could probe unsolved cases, get information and still allow for the possibility of justice once the evidence had been gathered.

Five years on, Dennis Bradley who co-authored the report is clearly frustrated. He said if the nettle had been grasped then, Northern Ireland would have been further ahead today.

Mr Bradley said, instead, the past remains as a "cancer" in society and politics.

He pointed to on-going divisions over who was to blame for the Troubles and what the truth actually is about the past.

"It's cancerous because one group of us want the truth and want to know the British government were as bad as the IRA - that they did illegal things," he said.

"And other people want to know that the IRA were real baddies in this and, by the way, the UVF weren't good either. So we fight around those issues and we have fought about those issues constantly.

"Now, if we can get past that. both at an individual and community level, we can then get on with things."

He said the problem is that politicians still want to solve it in a way that suits their constituency.

"You can't do that. You can only solve this if you solve it for everybody," he said.

Mr Bradley expressed deep regret that the Eames-Bradley report was not implemented.

"(We) would have been finished now," he said. "We would have moved towards this famous amnesty we are talking about and people are now beginning to point up."

Patrick Corrigan, of Amnesty International, said truth, justice and acknowledgement to victims were the key to society moving on.

Mr Corrigan said his organisation was opposed to a blanket amnesty on human rights grounds because victims of crime were entitled to access to justice.

"That must be a possibility that is pursued... Anything else would be letting down victims," he said.

However, Mr Corrigan acknowledged the reality that in many, perhaps most cases, the best that could be hoped for is some kind of truth recovery.

image captionDr Haass is chairing talks on flags, parades and the past

Clearly, the need for the truth has trumped the desire for justice before in the peace process.

In the search for the Disappeared, for example, those providing information about where bodies are buried are granted immunity from prosecution.

But even then, there are difficulties facing up to the past.

Sandra Peake, chief executive of victims' group, WAVE, said people did not always want to engage and answer questions about where they buried someone.

"Some people simply don't want to go back there," she said.

Dealing with the past is now in the hands of the US diplomat, Dr Richard Haass.

Ms Peake said a process is needed that is centred on the victim and the survivor.

She suggested Dr Haass not only deal with story-telling and memorials but also re-examine the proposed Eames-Bradley legacy commission.

Most now agree the status quo ad-hoc approach to the past, where details emerge in books and films and media interviews, cannot continue.

Dr Philip McGarry, a consultant psychiatrist who has counselled both victims and perpetrators, said it was not possible to ignore the past, or try to move on without dealing with it.

"There comes a time when the denials, the half-truths and the lies will no longer, in essence, cut the mustard.

"People don't want vengeance but what they do want is a sense of a recognition and acceptance of what happened was clearly wrong."

He warned that unless Northern Ireland faced up to its past in a healthy way, it was destined to continue as a divided society, with violence around the edges and the potential for bad things to happen.

"We can't ignore the past," he said.

"As a human being it's impossible to just draw a line when you have suffered a terrible hurt."

One thing is certain, whether Dr Haass goes for the soft or hard options, there is no pain-free prescription.

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