Hard decisions will have to be taken if we are to deal with legacy of the Troubles
Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30
THAT grainy black and white photograph of Jean McConville, with three of her 10 children so smilingly happy to be with their mother, does not seem a great starting point for a conversation about how we deal with our violent past on this island of Ireland.
The image is a haunting and heartbreaking one for anyone with a smidgen of humanity. It is of itself a strong argument for continuing rigorous investigations into past wrongs.
But after four very noisy days during which Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has been in PSNI custody in Antrim, we really do have to think about how the past is to be dealt with. Across the world, the Northern Ireland peace process is being studied as a model of conflict resolution.
Bereaved families and maimed victims of four decades of violence have reason to be far less positive about what the process has given them. A little-noticed report by Amnesty International, published last September, called 'Northern Ireland: Dealing With the Past', is well worth revisiting.
"There's a cruel irony in the fact that Northern Ireland is held up as a success story when many victims' families actually consider their treatment a failure," said Amnesty's Europe director John Dalhuisen at the time of the report's launch.
"Over the last decade a patchwork of measures... has failed to establish the full truth about the violations and abuses of the past and left many victims waiting for justice," he added.
People in all corners of this island have a strong reason for facing up to these issues. Those of us south of the Border have to realise that what happened in the North was a subset and a renewal of similar conflicts down here which go back centuries.
We must all recognise that the kidnap, murder and desecration of Jean McConville's body was among a catalogue of horrors in the bloody year of 1972. In fact, that year was by far the worst of what we still euphemistically call the 'Troubles'.
A total of 496 people died in the North that year – getting on for one seventh of the total number of 3,600-plus people who were variously murdered in that 30-year-long pointless conflict. Republican paramilitaries were in their killing heyday in 1972 as they are deemed responsible for 280 deaths; the Loyalists killed 121; and the security forces variously killed 86.
The Bogside massacre of January 30, 1972, when 26 civilians were shot down by the British Army, 14 of whom died, is one of the standout events of an utterly appalling year. We have to keep that in mind when we reflect that the authorities did nothing much to investigate the abduction and murder of Jean McConville at the time.
We also have to keep in mind that the McConvilles were extraordinarily poor and largely friendless. They and other victims were dealt a singular injustice and that wrong must be righted. The big question is how is that to be done?
The McConvilles, in part due to those haunting images of the children, are among a large litany of victims. Jennifer McNern was 21 when she went with her sister, Rosaleen, to Belfast for an afternoon's shopping in March 1972, finishing with coffee in the Abercorn Restaurant.
Then the bomb exploded and she woke up a week later in hospital missing both her legs. She was one of those who spoke about the fate of victims who have been largely written out of the North's history as time moves inexorably onwards.
The all-party talks, led by US envoy Dr Richard Haass in Belfast last December, dealt with these issues and made some proposals which have been tabled. There are signs that the British authorities are finally coming around to that way of thinking.
Dr Haass proposed a new, all-embracing body to deal with past killings of the Troubles. That it would take over historical investigative work currently carried out by the PSNI and Police Ombudsman is one of the main suggestions contained in the draft paper presented to the five main northern parties in Belfast.
The Haass proposals also allow for the possibility of those who carried out killings being granted 'limited immunity' in return for delivering the truth about their actions.
In summary, we are talking about a form of amnesty which would be formalised and would replace the current policy vacuum.
Some people will find this all very convenient for both the security authorities and the paramilitaries alike. But when the issue is assessed pragmatically, it is hard to see it going any other way. The time has come to make harsh decisions here and we cannot jeopardise the still fragile peace.
The infuriating thing for the McConville children – and for many of the rest of us – is that those responsible for Jean's abduction, death and desecration are unlikely ever to be punished. But there is the prospect of truth finally being established and an opportunity to deal with continuing grief.