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Contending with the past in Northern Ireland

Victims of the violence in Northern Ireland and their families still await justice.

Last updated: 09 May 2014 14:01
Dennis Godfrey

Dennis Godfrey is Member of the Board of the WAVE Trauma Centre in Northern Ireland. He was formerly Director of Communications at the Northern Ireland Office.
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Mechanisms for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland are still inadequate, writes Godfrey [EPA]

The story of Jean McConville is gothic horror at its worst. The widowed mother of 10 was dragged from her home, her screaming children trying to hold on to her, to be abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA.

Her children - the eldest 17, the youngest twins aged six - were left to fend for themselves before being taken into "care", the family split up and many still bearing the emotional scars of that horrendous experience of that day.

Her remains were not discovered for 31 years. Jean McConville was one of the Disappeared.

There were 15 others - all men - who were "Disappeared" by republican paramilitaries between 1972 and 1985. All were Catholic aged between 16 and 57. Three of them would be described today as vulnerable adults with learning difficulties.

Seeking justice

In seeking a settlement in Northern Ireland, both the United Kingdom and Irish governments recognised that the Disappeared was a specific issue that needed to be addressed as did the Republican movement.

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Legislation was passed in 1999 setting up the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR). The key feature of the ICLVR is that any information brought to it to help locate and recover remains can only be used for that purpose; it is kept in the strictest confidence and will never be passed to another agency.

To date, 10 bodies have been recovered six of them by the ICLVR based on information received. Seven remain missing including Seamus Ruddy, who is believed to be buried in northern France.

For the families of the Disappeared, their pain is not some kind of neuralgic relic of the past. It's ever present and will be with them until the remains of their loved ones are all returned

When a mother puts the name of her son on the family gravestone, the responsibility for bringing him home passes to the next generation. That the issue is still outstanding despite what has been put in place is a powerful illustration and manifestation of the immense difficulties of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

And those families are not alone in their frustration: The families of the "Ballymurphy Massacre", the family of Pat Finucane, the families of Enniskillen and Omagh, those who have been severely injured and traumatised over the decades of the Troubles and many others who have lost loved ones have yet to see a way forward.

The fundamental problem is that as things stand, mechanisms for dealing with the past are at best fragmented and piecemeal. Those who will be satisfied only when perpetrators are brought before the courts, face the problem of the prospect diminishing with the passage of time because the evidence simply isn't there.

Indeed, there are those who now argue that it is time to draw a line at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and cease investigating pre-1998 Troubles-related cases. Those calling for independent judicial inquiries into specific incidents have to come to terms with the fact that the British government has set its face against further public inquiries following the 12 year, multi-million pounds Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) set up to review thousands of cases of unsolved murders on a chronological basis to provide families who primarily want more information about what happened has had, at best, a mixed reception.

Dealing with the past

For those who have been injured in incidents there is no provision at all for them to find out what happened. And there are those who want to tell their story but there is no central archive for them to go to. And so victims and survivors have had to stumble along making the best of it.

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And that will continue to be the case unless and until there is a comprehensive and inclusive way of dealing with the needs of thousands of victims and survivors who suffered and still suffer terribly.

Without that it is difficult to see how real progress towards what has been called a shared future for Northern Ireland will be possible and the legacy of decades of death and destruction finally dealt with.

The most recent attempt to find that comprehensive way forward came at the end of 2013. Dr Richard Haass, a former Special Envoy to Northern Ireland under George W Bush, and Meghan O'Sullivan, the former Deputy National Security Adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan, were asked by the government in Northern Ireland to work with the political parties to come up with agreed proposals to move forward on a range of highly contentious issues including "Contending with the Past".

The final draft was indeed very encouraging. It recognised that there needed to be real reform of the mechanism for providing services to those impacted by violence over the years.

For the first time the needs of the injured were specifically recognised with a proposal for what in effect would be a pension for those severely injured as they had been unable to build up an occupational pension in the normal way.

An Historical Investigations Unit would have greater powers than the HET and its investigations could lead to prosecutions, which means that there would be no slate-wiping amnesty.

On the other hand, if the only way families could get to the truth was by making the information shared inadmissible in any criminal proceedings then this could be facilitated through an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval much as the ICLVR has been doing with some success for many years.

There was also a proposal for an ambitious archiving project for the collection of first hand oral testimony.

Would it work for everyone? Absolutely not, but then there isn't a post conflict process from anywhere in the world that has.

But does it hold out more hope, does it represent the "basis for change" that would be immeasurably better than what is currently in place?

The answer has to be "yes".

And yet the proposals are just that: "proposals". Dr Haass and Professor O'Sullivan went home without the deal being agreed. Victims and survivors are told by politicians almost on a daily basis that their needs are at the core of any process to deal with the past.

They should be held to that; otherwise victims and survivors in Northern Ireland will be condemned to continue to live under the dark shadow of the past.

Dennis Godfrey is Member of the Board of the WAVE Trauma Centre in Northern Ireland. He was formerly Director of Communications at the Northern Ireland Office.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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