Thanks to all the good people who shared their thoughts on what they would say inside 90 secs about the past – including those who said they’d use the time to mock me… You can hear what Alex Kane and I said here – we’re near the start.
I thought it important to stress that the past for us doesn’t simply begin in 1969 or the 1970s – as we should know in this decade of centenaries, the past here is a series of links in a chain, one event leading to another. The origins of our Troubles are rooted in the creation of the state of Northern Ireland – a state carefully carved out to ensure a permanent unionist majority (a plan which looks less and less cunning with every census). It was also a state that kept power firmly in its grasp by systemic discrimination and gerrymander; so when we talk about addressing the past (and I agree with Rev John Dunlop this morning – ‘cope’ is a far better word in terms of the past that ‘deal with’. ‘Deal with’ sounds as if we could master it. No chance.)…Where was I? Oh yes, talking of the past we need to factor in what kind of state existed here and how reaction to people seeking merely their civil rights was dealt with – and who were loudest in their bull-horn denunciation of those seeking their rights.
If you listen to the recording, you’ll notice that I am a bit pessimistic about things generally. Victims seek two things usually : justice and truth. Hardly too much to ask for, you may say. Unfortunately it is too much to ask for, because if justice were to be served, there is a high probability that people who served in Cabinets in Downing Street would be identified with some very dirty work. So while it must be galling to people like those who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday and to the Pat Finucane family and the Families of the Forgotten (remember them?), they are not going to get justice. They’ll probably never get the full truth either, but at least that’s worth trying for. I would support the idea of an independent Truth and Reconciliation commission, where people could be open in narrating what part they played and what blame they shared. The kind of contribution we most definitely would not need would be the kind of contribution that the Panorama programme offered last week: people speaking with arrogance about the lives they took, and being quickly supported in this attitudes by MPs and generals. And as I say, I believe someone speaking for the state here as it existed from the 1920s to the 1970s should be included in telling what they did.
Not all would contribute. I doubt if the British government would come clean. I expect there are republican and loyalist paramilitaries who would not take part. But there’s a good chance many would, and that would provide, I hope, some ease for those who have suffered. And again I’d stress – the nationalist population here would feel that truth had had its day in the sun, so to say, if the discrimination and gerrymander that stunted so many lives were acknowledged by those guilty of it.
That done, we could mark the past as Closed, at least as part of political dialogue. There’d be no deflecting of questions about financial or social matters by referring to what the questioner did or didn’t do in the years of conflict and before. We’d have a slate and a state that had been wiped as clean as we possibly could do. To try for more than that is to allow us all to be ball-and-chained to our divided past.