By Jack Holland
The Northern Ireland peace process reminds me of the feast in the third act of “Macbeth.” It is haunted. Macbeth’s banquet, however, had only one ghost (Banquo’s) to stalk it and disrupt the pleasure of the guilt-ridden Scottish king. Our peace process is haunted by thousands of specters who keep rearing up to remind us of crimes past. It has made the peace process, as the banquet was for Macbeth, an unnerving and unsettling experience.
Among the ghosts which are currently hovering over the dinner table are those of the 29 dead from the Omagh explosion, and that of Patrick Finucane, the solicitor and human rights activist murdered 13 years ago. Others are there as well. The 33 victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974, Patrick Hamill, kicked to death by a loyalist mob, and Rosemary Nelson, who was, like Finucane, a lawyer dealing in controversial cases and who, again like him, was targeted for her pains. Just last week, speaking in the House of Commons, Iris Robinson, MP, attempted to stir up another set of ghosts — those of the victims of the La Mon bombing. Twelve people were burned to death in this atrocity, carried out by the Provisional IRA, the 24th anniversary of which was on Sunday, Feb. 17. Robinson is asking for a public inquiry into the attack because, she claims, certain people responsible for it are now prominent political figures.
“The 24th anniversary of this bombing is almost upon us and I am hoping that fellow Members of Parliament will support my call for public inquiries into this and other similar atrocities carried out by the Provisional movement,” Robinson told the Commons. “While Sinn Fein/IRA are placed in government in Northern Ireland, while the IRA’s terrorist prisoners are released from jail and their MPs are given offices in the House of Commons, relatives of those killed by IRA terrorists are forgotten and tossed to the side by the government. We cannot let their deaths go unsolved.”
Robinson is giving vent to the Unionist feeling that all — or nearly all — of the inquiries currently being demanded into past misdeeds are to assuage nationalist feelings. So far only the murders of loyalist assassin Billy Wright in 1997 and those of Robert Buchanan and Harry Breen, two high-ranking RUC officers, in 1989 are there to balance the agenda.
They are part of a list that has been drawn up by the Irish and British governments and is expected to be handed to a judge from outside of the British Isles who will be asked to assess whether there are grounds to conduct a public inquiry into each or any of the cases. The list includes Finucane, Hamill and the victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings.
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If such an investigation ever moves forward, it will be the nearest thing to a South African-style truth commission that Northern Ireland has had. The South African experiment involved members of the security forces, members of the ANC and its armed wing, as well as ordinary civilians, testifying before a committee about their role in the bitter civil war which finally brought an end to apartheid. It was decidedly a mixed blessing and many believed that it mainly served to revive the bitter struggles of the past.
Though there have been suggestions that Northern Ireland should institute something similar, those in favor have been in a minority. As far as I am aware, no one in Sinn Fein is clamoring for a truth commission. Nor is either of the two sovereign governments. Most believe that it would prove to be a Pandora’s box.
This is because all sides have got terrible things to hide that they want to keep hidden. Take the example of the La Mon House atrocity, mentioned by Robinson. How would the Sinn Fein leadership, some of whom occupied prominent positions in the Provisional IRA in 1978, like to face questioning about how it was that bombs full of gasoline fuel were allowed to go off in an attack on the annual dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club? What would they say to the question: “How did a Collie Club dinner dance become a legitimate target?”
Of course, the Provisionals are not the only ones who would face (and should face) a grueling grilling. The approximately 1,000 murders committed by the various loyalist organizations (among them the worst in the Troubles) would doubtless generate a few questions for a truth commission to ask. For instance: “And how did you, Billy, decide that a seven-months’ pregnant woman was a legitimate target?”
The security forces, too, would probably prefer not to explain the killing of 14-year-old Julie Livingstone. She died after being hit by a plastic bullet in 1981.
However, the statistics show that the army and police were responsible for only about 10 percent of all the fatalities. Roughly two-thirds were caused by republicans, and the rest by loyalists. So any truth commission would have to concentrate on those groups responsible for most of the murders. It would reveal, among other things, that the vast majority of attacks carried out by both republican and loyalist organizations were almost certainly in defiance of the rules of the Geneva Convention, which means that, technically speaking, they are war criminals.
The truth about truth commissions is that what each side would like is its own truth commission. The Sinn Fein truth commission would then be allowed to look only at those deaths it hopes will fit its political agenda, and ignore those that do not. Likewise for the Unionists — only IRA-related incidents would be investigated.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is like that. It seems at times as if the republican and unionist communities live in parallel universes. The only suffering that is real to them is that experienced by their own side. They are the perennial victim; the other side, the perennial aggressor. Republicans have produced whole books on this model, in which the only funerals are their funerals.
The other condition which facilitated the South African Truth Commission was that the conflict there had a clear result: the ANC won. It could dictate its terms. In Northern Ireland, the paramilitaries lost, and those who would in different circumstances be most keen to brand only their enemies as guilty through a commission are not in a position to do so — though that has not stopped them from trying through more subtle means.