1Like many societies emerging from conflict in the second half of the 20th century, Northern Ireland is struggling to face its violent past in order to make way for a new peaceful society. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, ‘dealing with the past’ has become an important issue and has recently been defined in such terms:
For societies emerging from conflict involving protracted violence there is in general a need to address “what happened”. Dealing with the past could be defined as an active process of engagement with the past which endeavours to make sense of the past, to provide redress to those who suffered the consequences, and to resolve the social, economic, and political causes for the conflict in ways which transform relationships and structures at all levels of society, bringing long term individual and societal change. (Moore and Rolston 21)
2Researchers from various disciplines have come to the conclusion that working through a traumatic past is essential for a new society to function normally. Henry Rousso in Le Syndrome de Vichy explained that when a past traumatic event is repressed, it is bound to come back and express itself in the form of obsessional remembering (Traverso, 2005: 21). To avoid the present being overburdened with a painful past, to enable a society to face its past so that it does not haunt the present, a new art of forgetting defined by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, could be cultivated:
Alors n’y aurait-il place pour aucune forme respectable d’oubli cultivé, pour aucun art d’oublier ? … Le modèle en est l’oubli, de personne à personne, des offenses subies. Il s’agit d’un rapport intime de personne à personne, dans lequel oublier signifierait ne plus faire souci, et, par implication, ne plus faire accusation à l’adresse de l’offenseur, ne plus en faire mention, ne plus en faire grief…Une forme d’oubli pourra alors être légitimement évoquée, mais ce ne sera pas un devoir de taire le mal, mais de le dire sur un mode apaisé, sans colère. (Ricoeur 28-29)
3He then talks of ‘une mémoire collective juste, sous l’horizon d’une mémoire personnelle apaisée.’ (Ricoeur 28-29).
4Among conflict resolution theorists, the approach to dealing with the past seems more pragmatic. They generally agree on the fact that building peace and reconciling a divided population after a violent conflict require various processes. These include acknowledging and repairing prejudices experienced by victims and survivors, reintegrating perpetrators, building confidence and trust, removing social and economic injustices and addressing the past through truth-seeking and justice mechanisms. Past injustices and violent acts need to be established and responsibility accepted by those involved (IDEA; Miall). These theories have emerged especially after the Second World War from models adopted by various countries. If some of them, such as Spain had agreed on a ‘pact of forgetting’ (McEvoy 32), which has been questioned since 2005, most countries embarked on truth and justice initiatives that took various forms – from international retributive tribunals, such as Nuremberg, to lustration, commissions of historical clarification and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, such as in South Africa (McEvoy).
5To date, Northern Ireland has not chosen a particular model. However the time seems right for this society too to confront its past. The political context is relatively favourable with stable devolved institutions in place since May 2007 and political parties, once enemies, sharing power. By 2010, the main paramilitary groups have decommissioned, and since April of that year, policing and justice powers have been transferred to the devolved government. The population is also ready for some sort of mechanism to examine the past to be set up. According to the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey carried out in July 2005, 52% of respondents said that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be important for the future (Breen Smyth 153). This opinion was expressed again in December 2009 in a survey conducted by the Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland, in which two-thirds of respondents agreed that Northern Ireland needs to deal with its past in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. Societal issues such as sectarianism, truth and justice were also deemed important (CVSNI).
6The debate on how Northern Ireland should confront its past started as early as the period of the negotiations leading to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Initiatives sprang up simultaneously within the voluntary sector - supported by academic institutions - and official bodies in the form of remembrance activities or truth and justice exercises. This paper will focus on government-led initiatives and examine how official bodies and Tribunals of Inquiry set up to investigate past violent acts are able to establish the truth about what happened, can respond to the victims’ grievances, and can make perpetrators accountable for their acts in order to consolidate the peace-building process in Northern Ireland.
7Civil society and the voluntary sector have been instrumental in fostering the debate on how to deal with the past both within their own ranks and at government level. Soon after the peace settlement of 1998, two conferences were organised on the subject. The Dealing with the Past: Reconciliation Processes and Peace-Building Conference was hosted by INCORE in June 1998 in Belfast and funded by the Community Relations Council (see Annex) and the Central Community Relations Unit (see Annex). It gathered together various experts from different backgrounds and countries who had worked in Human Rights organisations or victims’ groups in conflict-torn countries. Drawing on examples of other post-conflict societies such as South Africa and Guatemala, the participants explored possible ways for Northern Ireland to engage in ‘remembering’ activities and in the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book that brought together the various contributions to the debate, concluded that due to the instability of the political context of the time, most of the stakeholders in the conflict were not ready to participate in an institutionalised process of revealing the full facts about unresolved past incidents (Hamber). Instead, contributors to the conference foresaw that ‘ “a patchwork of truth” (would) start to be uncovered, i.e. through individual communities documenting their stories and making them public’ (Hamber 85). They conclude that
Even if community groups embark on truth recovery processes at the local level, and there are a host of inquiries and other investigations that begin to build a patchwork quilt of truth in Northern Ireland, it can be anticipated that the call for official acknowledgement will not cease in the short-term. The people of Northern Ireland have competing versions of the past, but it is unlikely that the society will be able to move on, regardless of successes at political level, without some versions of the past being officially legitimised and validated, and some even discarded. (Hamber 85)
8The issue of the past was once again discussed at the initiative of NIACRO (see Annex) and Victim Support (Northern Ireland) who invited Dr Alex Boraine, Deputy Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in February 1999 ‘to explore lessons for Northern Ireland in the work’ of that commission (Victim Support (NI) / NIACRO). Participants in the visit of Dr Boraine made recommendations for the future highlighting that:
It is far too early to make firm recommendations about a truth finding process. We are still at a stage of continuing discussions to explore what are the parameters within which we might establish a truth finding process. (Victim Support (NI) / NIACRO 34).
9These two early conferences and reports can be seen as a first step in opening up and structuring discussion on a volatile issue and their conclusions were a forerunner of the present debate.
10Filling the void left by a lack of global and institutionalised truth-seeking process, many victims’ groups and community organisations embarked on remembering and storytelling activities in which individuals or whole communities told their experience of violence during the Troubles. Although most of these accounts have a therapeutic goal and aim at raising awareness in the population at large about the plight of those affected by the conflict, some clearly wish to uncover past events that were thought to have been omitted or silenced. Victims’ groups on the Nationalist side (Relatives for Justice) are still very active in promoting truth and justice to reveal State violence. In 2002, the Eolas network was established among organisations working with victims and former political prisoners. It produced a report calling for truth and justice issues to be tackled urgently ‘across the political community’ (Eolas Project, 2003). Blaming the devolved government for its lack of involvement and commitment in the field, it offered its own vision for a future strategy:
A society that acknowledges the hurts and losses of all, and promotes understanding; where a full and true account of the conflict is exposed, including the policies that initiated and perpetuated the conflict, its causes and consequences. The population (must) have an informed opinion of the events of the last 30 years. (Eolas Project, 2003: 15)
11Books such as Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (ACP, 2002), or Unfinished Business: State Killings and the Quest for Truth (Rolston, 2000), often document past events through individual stories to challenge what they perceive as the ‘official’ version of history.
12A plethora of publications have been released expressing a variety of experiences and revealing how each community in Northern Ireland feels unacknowledged. Thus a patchy narrative of the past emerges from these various stories and gives the impression that each group is competing for recognition.
13Projects such as the Cost of The Troubles Study, supported by both academics and people from the voluntary sector, analysed patterns of violence based on the number of deaths according to location and organisations responsible for them (Fay, 1999). The psychological and economic impact of the conflict was also documented. This research was able to clarify who had suffered most and who could be made accountable for violence, thus debunking perceived grievances that led to a blame game between the opposing communities.
14The most active organisation in structuring the debate on how to deal with the past is perhaps Healing Through Remembering (HTR), an offspring of the visit of Dr Alex Boraine to Northern Ireland in 1999. Founded in 2001, its first report details the results of the first wide-ranging consultation on the subject (Healing Through Remembering, 2002). Among the various submissions, those related to truth recovery processes and legal processes such as trials and inquiries were the most contentious. Although there was general support for addressing the legacy of the conflict, respondents could not reach a consensus on the form these processes should take. There were concerns about the willingness of perpetrators (paramilitaries or the State) to accept responsibility for their acts.
15From this consultation HTR made six recommendations for the future including various remembering activities (commemoration, day of reflection, living memorial, collective storytelling) and the acknowledgement by the main parties in the conflict of their responsibility in past political violence.
16All these initiatives within the voluntary sector provided a range of grounded research and a strong incentive for the government to take action.
17Both the British and devolved governments have dealt with the issue in a reactive way, carrying out consultations or setting up policies either as confidence-building measures in the unfolding peace process or yielding to pressure from civil society.
18While negotiations were underway to reach a political settlement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, announced the establishment of a Commission led by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield ‘to look at possible ways to recognise the pain and suffering felt by victims of violence arising from the troubles of the last 30 years’ and ‘to have particular regard to the possibility of establishing a new memorial reflecting both the sorrows of the past and hope for a stable future’ (Bloomfield, 1998: 8). This commission clearly focused on paying tribute to victims of the conflict by delivering practical assistance and symbolic recognition in the form of a memorial at a time when the early release of political prisoners was seen as a concession that needed to be counterbalanced by measures in favour of people who had been affected by violence. In its report, We Will Remember Them, the commission hinted at truth and justice issues: ‘the possibility of benefiting from some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission at some stage should not be overlooked’ (Bloomfield, 1998: 50).
19While other official documents postponed addressing the issue (Victims Unit, OFMDFM, 2002 and Victims Unit, OFMDFM, 2009), campaigns by the voluntary sector incited the government to take action. In May 2004, Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a trip to South Africa to learn lessons from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2005, the British government gave up the idea of a consultation on dealing with the past as no consensus emerged on the subject in a context of political instability following the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (McEvoy, 2006: 1-8). However, in the same period, when repeated revelations on unsolved murders were made public, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the House of Commons started a consultation (Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, 2005). Respondents were broadly in favour of re-examining the past but thought the time was not right. Marked divisions appeared between Loyalist / Unionist organisations who were more likely to oppose the idea and Nationalist, Human Rights organisations and the voluntary sector who were more likely to approve it (Breen Smyth, 2007).
20In 2007, the population was once again addressed through the establishment of the Consultative Group on the Past (CGP) by Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The group published a report in 2009 recommending that dealing with the past should be a forward-looking exercise focusing on reconciliation and based on a consensus (Consultative Group on the Past, 2009). An independent Legacy Commission chaired by international commissioners would be set up to deal with such societal issues as sectarianism, reconciliation, working with young people, tackling health and economic problems in disadvantaged areas and developing memorial activities. A committee would be in charge of re-examining unsolved murders. It would be a fact-finding exercise that would help families learn about the circumstances of the death of their relative(s). It would also look at paramilitary activities and alleged cases of collusion between security forces and paramilitaries. There would be no public hearing; no accusatory procedure and statements could be used in future trials. At present these recommendations are yet to be implemented.
21While no consensus has been reached after these successive consultations and reports on how to develop a coherent and global strategy, the government created a patchwork of official institutions and Tribunals of Inquiry to review past events.
22The government set up two statutory bodies with powers to investigate past incidents. The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) is a unit within the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) in charge of re-examining unsolved deaths due to the political conflict from 1968 to 1998 (Historical Enquiries Team: Policing the Past). Set up in 2005, its role is to look at 2,500 such ‘old cases’ and document the circumstances of deaths for the bereaved families so that they know what happened and are able to mourn and move on. With a clear focus on bereaved families, the work of the unit does not seek to consider the wider political context and does not try to analyse historically the causes of the conflict. The HET states:
The recent violent past in Northern Ireland is one of the most difficult periods of our history, which has left many unanswered questions for bereaved families. The HET works to provide as many answers as possible for families seeking information about their loved ones (…)
The HET recognises that the death of a loved one, no matter how long ago, is not an historical event but an ever-present source of trauma and upset. It hopes that its reviews and investigations may offer families some measure of resolution (…)
23Indeed, many (families) have accepted that prosecutions may never be possible. They are simply looking for someone to tell them the story of how their relative died.
24It can be viewed as a process of dealing with individuals and as a fact-finding rather than judicial exercise.
25So far around 500 cases have been reviewed and only two persons have been convicted. The unit is faced with difficulties regarding evidence or testimonies that have either altered with time or are simply missing. In 2011, its existence is jeopardised because of a lack of funding.
26In 1998, the office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) was established under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 to provide the public with a police complaints service. It has reviewed 30 cases of incidents involving the police that occurred between 1969 and 2004, documented in reports available to the public on their website (Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland). These enquiries do not lead directly to prosecutions or convictions as no person is directly mentioned. The reports refer to ‘certain officers’, ‘officer A’, ‘Person II’ (Hutchinson, 2010; O’Loan, 2003), and sometimes remain inconclusive ‘the Ombudsman cannot confirm nor deny who that individual is’, or ‘the Ombudsman will never confirm nor deny the status of any individual’ (O’Loan, 2007: 138). Most reports denounce failings in the police system, technical problems during investigations such as destruction or loss of material and admit collusion between the police and paramilitaries in relevant cases. Despite difficulties in some reviews of cases due to some officers involved either being retired or deceased, these reports have been able to identify dysfunction and failings within the police during the conflict.
27However, in 2011, the powers to investigate and the independence of the PONI were severely criticized both by Human Rights groups and a report by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) released in September 2011. It raised serious concerns on how historical cases were investigated and the way families are briefed on the investigation findings, leading to a lack of confidence in the system:
What is clear from the inspection … is the flawed nature of the investigation process used in historical cases. It seems to be buffeted from a number of different directions. This leads to a lack of confidence among many of those involved in the process including some investigators themselves, victims’ families and their representatives and the police. … These issues have led to a lowering of the operational independence of the OPONI. (CJINI, 2011: 33-34)
28Human Rights NGOs including the British-based Irish Rights Watch, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre called for ‘a reform of the process for investigating historical cases involving the police’ and claimed that some of the ‘OPONI reports were being vetted by the PSNI ‘(CAJ, 2011). Legal problems concerning the technical inability by the PONI to re-investigate 50 cases where RUC officers were responsible for deaths were also pinpointed at the same period (BBC, 2011).
29These failings cast doubt on the accountability of statutory bodies and the results of the investigations, which hampers the process of dealing with the past especially for families of the victims. However imperfect, the investigations were able to identify the institutional dysfunctioning of the police during the conflict. Other truth-finding mechanisms led to similar conclusions concerning other institutions.
30To investigate past incidents, the British government also set up Tribunals of Inquiry under legislation passed in 1921 and then modified in 2005 (Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921; Inquiries Act 2005). Since 1969, these Inquiries had been established in 26 instances.
31In 1998, Tony Blair announced a new Inquiry into the events that occurred on 30th of January 1972 known as Bloody Sunday, following a long campaign by bereaved families who pushed for the previous Inquiry into the events held in 1972 to be reviewed. The new tribunal was also seen as a measure of confidence building in the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement. The Widgery Inquiry of 1972 had been contested as it was deemed to have been carried out too quickly and without having considered all the evidence available at the time. It mainly exonerated the soldiers of their responsibility while it hinted at the fact that people who had died had been firing weapons or handling bombs.
32In his 1998 statement Tony Blair reaffirmed the support of the government for its armed forces. He claimed the aim of the new inquiry was to establish the truth:
Madam Speaker, let me make clear that the aim of the Inquiry is not to accuse individuals or institutions or invite fresh recriminations but to establish the truth about what happened on that day, so far as that can be achieved at 26 years' distance.
Bloody Sunday was a tragic day for all concerned. We must all wish it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth, and close this painful chapter once and for all.
Most (members of the families of the victims) do not want recrimination. They do not want revenge. But they do want the truth. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone that the truth is established, and told. It is also the way forward to the necessary reconciliation which will be such an important part of building a secure future for the people of Northern Ireland (Blair, 1998).
33The new inquiry was held between 1998 and 2005 chaired by Lord Saville and its report was released publicly, with intense media coverage, in June 2010. While families of the 14 people who had died on Bloody Sunday supported by a crowd of sympathisers had gathered in Derry, David Cameron made a speech at the House of Commons commenting on the conclusions of the report. He stated that the armed forces on that day were responsible and that people who had been killed were innocent. What happened on that day was ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ and on behalf of the government, Cameron offered his apologies. However he claimed that there was no premeditation and no government cover up and paid tribute to the work done during the conflict by the armed forces.
34Cameron clearly attempted to deliver a message that would appease grievances that had developed over the last 35 years on what was considered an injustice. Although his apologies can been seen as a way for the government to acknowledge responsibility, he does so by only incriminating the lowest level of the hierarchy in the army, thus avoiding any possible future challenge to the highest ranks in the government.
35In the early 2000s, an active campaign by families to reconsider deaths due to alleged collusion between paramilitaries and members of the security forces led to the official appointment of Judge Cory who examined the murders of two Republican lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, a civilian Robert Hamill, and a Loyalist prisoner Billy Wright. The ‘Cory reports’ concluded in 2003 that there had been collusion in these four cases and recommended opening Inquiries. However, the British government was reluctant to do so and changed legislation concerning Tribunals of Inquiry (Inquiries Act 2005) which now gives extensive power of control to the government on the composition and the funding of these tribunals, on access to evidence and on the publication of the conclusions reached at the end of the procedure. These new arrangements were deeply criticized by Human Rights groups, families of the deceased and Judge Cory. Pat Finucane’s widow still refuses to participate in this type of Inquiry or any kind of compromise offered by the State (McEvoy, 2006: 46). The Hamill and Wright cases were treated under the new legislation whereas that of Rosemary Nelson fell under the previous Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921.
36Rosemary Nelson was a prominent lawyer who defended Republicans. She was blown up in her car on 15 March 1999 by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist paramilitary group. The report of the Inquiry, released in May 2011 concluded:
There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder. But we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson (Morland 465-7).
37The report admitted that omissions by state agencies had put her at risk (Morland 466), that the RUC had publicly abused and assaulted her in 1997. There had been leakage of intelligence and abusive and threatening remarks about her had been made to her clients. However, the report stated that: ‘There is no evidence of any deliberate attempt by any of the organs of the state corporately to obstruct the investigation of the murder’. However in general:
The murder investigation was exhaustive, energetic and enterprising. It was not perfect in every respect. In the main, the investigation was carried out to a high standard, in very difficult conditions. Overall, the investigation of the murder was carried out with due diligence. (Morland 465-7)
38Here again the government is ready to incriminate some elements of the state agency without challenging the whole institution’s apparatus.
39In the Wright Inquiry, failings within official bodies are emphasized:
As may be seen in the preceding Chapters of this Report, we have been critical of certain individuals and institutions or state agencies, some of whose actions did, in our opinion, facilitate his death. (McLean 642)
40To qualify these failings, the report points to the fact that ‘this was a wrongful omission (…) which facilitated the murder of Billy Wright’. (McLean 641-52)
41Billy Wright was the leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a Loyalist paramilitary group who was murdered while he was incarcerated at the Maze Prison by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a Republican paramilitary group. There were allegations of collusion and of guns having been smuggled into the prison. The report of the Inquiry (McLean) released in September 2010 noted the great difficulty in carrying out the investigation as certain key witnesses were not able to give evidence as they were either deceased or unwell, and some ‘documents had been destroyed’. The Prison Service was also ‘reluctant to produce documents’ because of problems with record keeping. The report concluded that there was no evidence of collusion and rather underlined a failure in the management of the Prison Service in 1997, a lack of adequate and effective systems of information management and acts of ‘malpractice’ and concealment of evidence (McLean 641-52). MI5 and the Security Minister Adam Ingram escaped any blame.
42In both the Nelson and Wright Inquiries, negligence on the part of various government bodies was underlined and in both cases the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson apologised on behalf of the government at the House of Commons for these various failings.
43The truths these various investigations reveal cannot be complete despite the fact that the inquiries were carried out thoroughly. In many cases, documents and evidence are missing and witnesses are not available. The official Inquiries operate within a framework of specific Terms of Reference and the new Inquiries Act 2005 might be deemed restrictive. Most of the time they aim at appeasing trauma or the grievances of bereaved families. They, to a certain extent, reveal failures and dysfunction in state organisations and incriminate some individuals. The government is ready to apologise publicly and denounce those failings. But the reports or government statements also underline the difficulties under which public services operated in the context of the Northern Ireland conflict, and tribute is paid to the agents of these services.
44With no global mechanism to deal with the past, these truth recovery processes come at a time of a relatively stable political context that allows revelations to be made public. In some cases they provide redress to families and communities, the most symbolic case being that of the Saville Inquiry whose conclusions repaired the injustice and addressed the anger felt by a whole community in Derry. However demands by families cannot be completely fulfilled, as these demands are never the same. Some might be satisfied, others would like to see people prosecuted and when the conclusions of the reports do not correspond to their grievance, some families will not feel acknowledged.
45Some bereaved families or victims also feel left aside, as the number of official Inquiries or investigations are limited. They feel they have not received the same treatment, which reinforces a feeling that there is a hierarchy of victims, a theme that is taken up by political parties such as the DUP in the case of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.
46In the main, the various official responses to dealing with the past bring a measure of appeasement and apologies by the government represent a way of acknowledging some responsibility for past violence, however incomplete these truth and justice processes are.