Dealing with the past? The devil will be in the details

Dealing with the past? The devil will be in the details
Newton Emerson
Sunday Times
30 March 2014

The Boston College tapes make a mockery of all high-blown talk about “dealing with the past”. The idea that a formal process of investigation, truth recovery and historical assessment into 3,700 Troubles deaths could work at all, let alone satisfy all sides, looks absurd given the saga over one 42-year-old case.

For Sinn Fein the problem is specific to the Boston College oral-history project, which involved interviewing 85 republican and loyalist ex-paramilitaries, on the understanding that the recordings would be sealed until their deaths. “This project originated with Paul Bew, an adviser to David Trimble, and was taken up by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre who conducted the interviews,” Gerry Adams said last week. “Both are vitriolic critics and opponents of the Sinn Fein peace strategy, of me in particular, and of Sinn Fein and its leadership.”

However, this implication of biased intent and selection is irrelevant. When the PSNI began investigating the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearance of Jean McConville, it subpoenaed 11 of the Boston interviews, while the subsequent prosecution is thought to involve using only one, that of Ivor Bell. So unless Sinn Fein imagines excluding every off-message republican, even a complete archive of Troubles testimony compiled by a “balanced” team would contain material of an identical nature. Like the Bloody Sunday inquiry, a formal process would almost certainly include a proviso that testimony could not be used to prosecute interviewees or those they might accuse.

Sinn Fein has been deeply critical of the professionalism of the Boston College project because those involved apparently believed, wrongly as it transpired, that academics can “seal” records from criminal investigation. However, the McConville case shows this is beside the point. The PSNI began its murder inquiry only after Boston College interviewee Dolours Price gave entirely separate interviews to a wide range of media outlets, in which she confessed to involvement in McConville’s abduction and claimed Adams had ordered it.

Does anyone imagine a formal process would never “leak” in this manner? How could such leakage be prevented? Price, who died last year, appeared motivated to confess by the publication of Belfast IRA commander Brendan Hughes’s Boston testimony after his death. It transpired that while she spoke about McConville to journalists, her Boston interview did not mention the abducted mother of 10.

Would a formal process, encompassing thousands of cases, not provoke a far greater torrent of unscheduled revelations? How would the legal and political blowback not derail a formal process, as it has done to the Boston project?

Behind the McConville case stand the McConville family, who support the police and the prosecution fully. McConville’s daughter has insisted on having a day in court. This basic desire cannot be ignored by what is supposed to be a “victim- centred” approach. The only way to stop a formal process sparking off countless criminal and civil prosecutions is for it to be accompanied by a general Troubles amnesty, plus a change in the law on the statute of limitations for civil cases.

Legally, this is just about possible if the process meets the Human Rights Act requirement to investigate all killings. However, the furious reaction across the board when Northern Ireland’s attorney general discussed it last November, as well as the fallout from the on-the-runs scandal, has rendered an amnesty politically impossible.

To appreciate the impossibility of the formal process’s ambition, you must not only multiply the McConville case by 3,700 but add the burden of historical “themes”. The introduction of themes arose in the Richard Haass talks from a republican demand to produce an official verdict on loyalist-British state collusion. Unionists then proposed their own themes, which included IRA-Irish state collusion, alleged IRA “ethnic cleansing” along the border and “any policy behind the Disappeared”.

All the themes of the Troubles turn on disputed details, of which there are literally millions. Even if Northern Ireland were cohesive enough to produce an official history, it could never pronounce a final verdict on “themes”.

If we really took a historical perspective, we would see that an organic process of dealing with the past is already under way. It consists of the unpredictable interplay of events and individuals as they pursue justice through imperfect institutions, slowly uncovering stories, changing attitudes and embarrassing the great and the good — and the bad.

Media and public attention will by necessity focus on a small number of cases at a time, making their prominence essentially random, before their impact is digested and the spotlight moves on. The historical debate will never end, and the only final verdicts will be the handful reached in court.

The trite hope of “dealing with the past” merits only a trite conclusion. The past will be dealt with by the untidy present, until the future no longer cares.