‘Perpetrators on all sides must display atonement and share truths’

Bloody Sunday relatives make their way from the City Hotel to the Guildhall.  DER1119GS-013
Bloody Sunday relatives make their way from the City Hotel to the Guildhall. DER1119GS-013

The words of the former Ulster Unionist Party MLA resonated when listening to family members affected by the results of violence associated with Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Monaghan and Dublin who had gathered in a meeting convened in Derry, writes Terry Wright.

The words which no one in the room could avoid hearing: “If I had my way, I would put the soldiers in jail and throw away the key” laid bare the bitter hurt of one family member. It sounded like more than a call for justice.

The late Martin McGuiness MLA was keen to assert on many occasions locally that he was a problem-solver.

Some will disagree but, on this evening, shortly after his death, I wondered if there was a political leader out there who could begin to find a way of addressing the problems of the past.

The question, in addition to an ever-increasing list of others, remains unanswered. Problem-solvers are in short supply.

Politics today steers a different course.

A few days later I met a nationalist friend who queried why I had not made any comment at the event.

I explained: “If I had spoken I would have referred to the callous murder of a Census official and young mother in Derry, the Claudy bombing and the experiences of a close friend who still carries the physical and emotional pain of that day but it would have sounded like ‘What about?’

“We will not begin to solve the legacy of the past until the families of Bloody Sunday feel able to say what about Claudy, La Mon, the Shankill bombing, Enniskillen or Bloody Friday and the families of Claudy feel able to say what about Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Monaghan and Dublin?

“At that point the community needs to hear the truth.”

My friend is sufficiently well informed to know that the incidents referred to do not offer a definitive list of our many bloody days; that, if we are only sensitive to ourselves, we live in a limiting state of self-reference.

In Northern Ireland, too many have shared the experience of loss or injury resulting from 40 and more years of conflict and violence but those experiences have not been the same.

Northern Ireland has many pasts and many narratives. There are different views of who or what is right and who or what is wrong.

The debate exhibits all the characteristics of an elastic band as we continuously bounce back to the same points of disagreement.

A web of politics is woven around the dead and injured.

The heat of current argument over dealing with the legacy of the past arises from the possibility that some cases will be investigated whilst others will not and presents fresh controversy.

The announcement of the prosecution of a soldier involved in the tragic events in Derry on January 30, 1972 does little to diminish the view that the money devoted to the Saville Inquiry followed by the announcement today has created a hierarchy of victims.

With alleged unlawful actions of the state being prioritised whilst some of the loudest voices in support of this remain silent and omit distressing truths from their comments, an inflamed chaos of rival interests and justification ensues.

This is already apparent on social media and reinforces obstacles to creating a transformational process of reconciliation based on truth sharing as opposed to the convergence of vested interests whose motivation is to justify a narrative and past actions.

That process becomes ghettoised and promotes frozen mindsets.

Too often the call for justice is partial and selective; creating a new injustice becomes more than a possibility.

The recent ill-considered words and actions of the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP on this issue, serve as a metaphor for the futility of competing entrenchment and polarisation on the past.

With no meeting of political minds, she must feel that she is dancing in a minefield where she has contributed to existing hazards. She is only part of any solution.

Political comment suggests that present problems are being addressed from the same premise as before so is there any likelihood that outcomes can be different?

They continue to be defined in terms that do not go beyond what is acceptable to and what can be sold to ‘our side’.

Does this point to a realistic recognition that we cannot build a future by doing what we did in the past?

The Good Friday Agreement required many of its advocates to permit their head to overrule their heart, not least over the release of prisoners.

In its acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement the majority of people chose the extent to which they were prepared to adjust for a better future.

The desire to end a septic and sordid conflict took precedence, as important and difficult issues were unresolved.

They continue to be important but being important does not guarantee a solution.

The alphabet soup of initiatives, reports, proposals, agencies, letters, investigations and enquiries is not bringing a solution.

They are costly and not even-handed.

The time is probably past for such measures to be meaningful as a new generation which has no direct memory is exposed to indirect memory and contentious exchanges ensuring that the divisive war for supremacy of one version of the past continues.

Yet, the Agreement which brought that war to an end prioritised reconciliation over recompense and peace over retribution

Is it time to ask how much longer the new generation can be expected to indulge how the older generation lived their lives; a generation many of whom still allow the language of war to skew everyday life?

Drawing a line in the sand may not be the answer but moving off the sand and on to firmer foundations with increased advocacy for the well-being, welfare and needs of those who have been victims and live out the everyday legacy of pain, mental trauma and the poverty of human comforts that does not grab the headlines.

Set alongside this is the moral imperative for the perpetrators of conflict on all sides to display atonement and share their truths beyond court cases in an inclusive way.

This will require all to test their actions, past and present, against measures that are robust in terms of humanity and social justice.

The resources lie within and acted upon may begin to meet the needs of those currently marginalised by politics.