Dealing with the past? Donaldson. McGuinness, Finucane, Kingsmills……

This past week we have heard the Taoiseach call again for a Finucane Inquiry. The ensuing uproar, now typical and expected and a response against which we have all been anesthetized, brought forth calls for other inquiries, the most significant among them from those who continue to hope for an inquiry into the Kingsmills massacre. Cameron has been put under pressure, not for the first time, to meet the Kingsmills families. One can only imagine what he might say to them if he did meet them


As this grinds on and on calls for some dealing with the past have become like a mantra with little response. But it continues to go on, the past just isn’t going away. In some way or another it is going to have to be dealt with. Otherwise it will continue to draw pain to the surface time and again without the hope of healing. Each new moment opens old wounds which are offered no healing balm.

It is bad enough with the ongoing call for a Finucane Inquiry. It is bad enough but the opportunity an inquiry seems to have past despite the weighty voices that continue to call for it. It is bad enough to have to listen to the tit-for-tat calls for inquiries but these are not the only matters from the past that have reached the headlines this last week.

The Deputy First Minister made a denial to the Smithwick Tribunal, itself an ongoing inquiry into events of the past, and then the unmentionable was mentioned – will the family of Denis Donaldson ever get the truth about what happened. Eamonn Mallie comments on Rowan’s piece that he is shining,

a light into some dark corners of the intelligence world on the island of Ireland.

Just another place from which some truth trickles but the whole truth, even a sizable piece of truth, slips through the fingers like quicksilver.

Meanwhile Ed Moloney is being interviewed about the Belfast Project, still making the headlines with the ever alive interest in what will happen to the Boston files.

In another perspective the past continues to make it’s hit into todays world through the increasing suicide rate. Amongst the highest in Europe suicide rates are being explained in terms of the legacy of the Troubles, a legacy which is not quietly slipping away. ‘Belfast must collectively acknowledge the hurt and suffering of the Troubles in a bid to tackle the city’s high suicide rates, an international expert has urged.’

WIMPS has had to launch a TV campaign against punishment attacks which have been rising in frequency, particularly in North and West Belfast. These attacks have been featured on the Nolan Show two days in a row.

Conor Mitchell has written a Requiem for the Disappeared, not all of them yet located, which is to be performed on May 3rd at St Anne’s Cathedral, a world premiere. Another dig has begun for Columba McVeigh. For the sake of his family one can only hope and pray that this time they won’t be disappointed.

Meanwhile the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, echoed Minister Deenihan’s speech last week at the Presbyterian Conference when he said in Derry yesterday that,

while recognising that different people can hold differing interpretations of the same events, it will be important that the commemoration of these anniversaries is carried out in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.

He was speaking of the need for continuing work to be done for reconciliation and especially as Ireland, North and South, starts out on a decade of centenaries which offer up the potential for something different to be done and a better future to be constructed.

There is so much positive talk about remembering events which took place one hundred years ago. But there is no such constructive talk when it comes to our more recent past. There are those who continue to make suggestions as to what might be done but the grassroots process is making far from enough impact on the people who can make it happen in an organised and coherent way that pulls the whole picture into one frame and sets a co-ordinated process in motion. Without that approach, from the bottom to the top of society, stories about the past will continue to slip into the headlines and under the skin of people who are trying to heal. Pictures will persist in flashing without warning on the evening news assaulting the unsuspecting with the eruption of salt-sore memories into their consciousness when all they wanted was to be well and to deal with things in their own, controlled way.

When that is taken alongside the suicide rate, the punishment beatings, the separated housing, the interfaces and the trouble around interfaces, the suspicion that persists even when good motives are declared, as with the early stepping down of the Lord Mayor of Belfast, and I could go on – when taken alongside all of that one has to wonder what the problem really is. What is the problem with those who think this is just going to go away? What on earth gives them the impression that they are right? One hundred years on we have government units in Dublin and Westminster working together to think through how to handle the memory of things long past but we have no such units pulling together on recent history despite the dreadful impacts that history continues to have on families and communities and memory and hope, drastic impacts. What is the problem? Haven’t we yet learned just how precious life is and how imperative it is that we act out of a deep sense of justice and not out of fear?

A long, long time ago, longer than one hundred years, the prophet Micah saw it more clearly than we are seeing it. His words remind us that it is time to bend our efforts to what really matters and to stop pretending that it will all just go away.

The Lord God has told us
what is right
and what he demands:
“See that justice is done,
let mercy be your first concern,
and humbly obey your God.” Micah 6v8

In her research report Progressing Good Relations and Reconciliation in Post-Agreement Northern Ireland Grainne Kelly presents key findings and five year priorities out of which grow eight recommendations. If only one of these were to be considered, and I am certainly not advocating that only one be chosen, then it should be this one which invites all the stakeholders to play their part:

Articulate link between good relations, reconciliation and dealing with the past. For too long ‘dealing with the past’ has been treated as a separate, often mechanistic, process involving specific structures, actions, objectives and constituencies, disengaged from the wider good relations and reconciliation objectives in Northern Ireland. What is required is a

clear articulation of the connections, commonalities and intersections between dealing with the past and broader reconciliation processes at individual, community, political and societal levels. This should replace the current siloing of dealing with the past and relationship-building processes into separate grant programmes, policy documents and community projects. In continuing the development of a framework and action plan for good relations policy and practice work, the report of the Consultative Group on the Past should be revisited and cross- referenced to ensure coherence and consistency of approach and objectives.

However it is done and whatever is used as the foundation for the work in building a more reconciled society it needs to happen or the past will continue to destroy both overtly and covertly.


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