Comment: It’s time to confront Northern Ireland’s legacy of the past

By Naomi Long MP

Northern Ireland's past has been very well documented by the media throughout the decades of the Troubles. Everyone is well aware of the violence that ripped our community apart and of the peace process that has helped provide the stability upon which progress can now be built.

What is less well recognised is the challenge which we still face in terms of addressing the legacy of violence and conflict and the absence of a comprehensive or coherent approach to dealing with this issue. Over the last year, there have been a series of high-profile issues, such as the report on Bloody Sunday and the handling of the Finucane family, who – despite promises made by the previous government – were recently invited to London to be told by the prime minister that no public inquiry would now be held into the murder of Pat Finucane. We've also seen the reaction to the entry of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MP MLA, into the Irish presidential race.

Each, in its own way, has highlighted the deficiencies in the piecemeal approach to dealing with the past which has been adopted and how crucial it is that we have an agreed and overarching process in place to address the needs of victims, survivors and wider society.

Do we not owe victims and survivors a discussion about the past which is actually focused on their needs and those of the wider community, on reconciliation and building a shared future, rather than undertaken in a context which is tragically devoid of that hope?

Two years on from the Northern Ireland Office consultation on dealing with the past and its legacy, ended in October 2009, there has been no tangible progress towards a more holistic approach which could offer society that prospect. The consultation elicited plenty of responses but little in the way of political agreement. In reply to my questions, the secretary of state, Owen Paterson, has repeatedly stated that political consensus is required to take the process forward and has acknowledged that, on this most sensitive of issues, such consensus will be hard to achieve.

I don't disagree with that analysis, but after two years, it's also fairly clear that such consensus will not simply emerge of its own accord. Rather, it needs to be actively pursued with local parties and I believe the secretary of state has a duty to drive that process forward. Convening a meeting with local political parties would be a good starting point and I have written to Owen Paterson calling on him to do so.

The debate regarding the past and its legacy is sometimes characterised as a struggle between those who "want to move on" and those who are "stuck in the past". However, that is both a simplistic and a deeply flawed analysis, which does an injustice to many of those who suffered greatly during the Troubles and have been instrumental in promoting peace and progress.

The truth is that as a society we cannot move forward, with assurance, confidence and with integrity to build the shared future to which we aspire, unless we deal comprehensively with the past and its legacy.

Whether we like it or not, the past will continue to cast a long shadow over our future, reasserting itself in ways and at times of its own choosing. Victims have a legitimate right to truth and acknowledgement about the cruelties and violence they have endured. Furthermore there is a deep hypocrisy in politicians calling one day for a line to be drawn on the past while with the next breath demanding inquiries or changes in the definition of victim to exclude their chosen targets. The issue is not, therefore, whether we confront and deal with the past but rather how we choose to do so.

At present we are settling for a piecemeal, fragmented approach, facing issues as and when they emerge or calling for investigation when it suits a narrow political agenda. Discreet inquiries may be worthy in their own right but they run the risk of compounding hurt by ignoring some victims entirely or even distorting our view of the past by considering events out of sequence and out of context.

It is surely imperative that we strive for an overarching process capable of addressing the individual pain of those who suffered and the wider need to heal divisions and learn the lessons of the past, so that we avoid repeating it.

Sadly, the controversy which surrounded the proposed £12,000 recognition payment entirely overshadowed the greater potential at the heart of the Eames-Bradley report. The report was not perfect, but it provided a credible basis on which a process could be built.

The central recommendation for a legacy commission, with four separate elements of reconciliation, investigations, information recovery and thematic issues, offered a structure which could give coherence to those elements of existing good practise. It covered the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, the Community Relations Council, and Commission for Victims and Survivors, and in a context focused on building a shared future. It would also underpin the valuable work done by those community and voluntary groups who offer vital practical support to victims and survivors.

Time does not heal all wounds and the passage of time alone will not make the past less controversial, less painful or remove its potential to destabilise communities. There is a wealth of international evidence that this is the case. Instead, with each passing year, many of those directly affected simply feel the opportunity to know even the basic truth of what happened to their loved ones, let alone see justice done, slipping from their grasp.

These issues must be addressed in an inclusive and comprehensive way not only for the sake of those individuals but also for the good of wider society, so that the more prosperous, hopeful and shared future for which we are working can be built on truly stable foundations.

The time to do it is now.

Naomi Long MP is deputy leader of the Alliance party

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