What is truth? In Anne Cadwallader’s new book, Lethal Allies—British Collusion in Ireland, she writes: “Moving on is impossible when the truth lies buried in a barren field in County Armagh without a headstone.
“Clichés are not enough for families who were not only bereaved but also ignored for half a century and then fed lies. What future does any community have that refuses to uncover or understand the truths of its recent past?”
Cadwallader has pedigree when it comes to journalism. She has worked for the BBC, RTE and Reuters and was then Northern Editor for Independent Network News from 1997 to 2009. Yet Danny Kennedy dismisses her book as “blurring the lines between fact and fiction and fuels a narrative of the Troubles that republicans demand be accepted. People know the truth that the IRA were responsible for the majority of murders during the Troubles and they bear the greatest actual and moral responsibility for loss of life. This, and all other attempts by republicans to rewrite history and seek to absolve themselves, must be challenged as a distortion of both fact and history”.
Someone, whose opinion I respect, dismissed the book—and he hadn’t read it—with “what would you expect from someone who works for the Pat Finucane Centre and who is married to a former Irish republican prisoner?” Would it have made any difference to his opinion had I told him that Cadwallader’s mother, father and sister all served in the British Army, or that her brother is a retired police officer? I doubt it.
What is truth? I think we’ve reached that point at which truth is what we want it to be: what we need it to be. Truth, in those circumstances, must be something that confirms our own outlook and end goal. How could it be anything other than that when we live in a conflict-stalemate world of competing narratives, conflicting agendas, contradictory memories and clashing constitutional ambitions? How can truth be objective or absolute when the root of the conflict hasn’t been resolved; when we can’t agree on the name of the country we supposedly share; when the two power blocs serve only the interests of their own side: and when consensus on key issues remains as elusive as it has been since June 1921?
There are some who believe that an ‘internationally run truth process’ might allow us to uncover the ‘truth’ if all sides agreed to tell the truth. Yep—and my cat might fly if I taped wings to its underbelly and pushed it from the bedroom window! The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission started from the basis that the key protagonists wanted to reach a conclusion at which they could cooperate and coexist within the same country. They wanted peace. They wanted resolution. They wanted, in so far as it was possible, to wipe the slate clean and begin again: and that would mean admitting guilt and expressing remorse.
Such a process is not possible in Northern Ireland, not least because some of those involved cannot even get themselves to the point of saying ‘Northern Ireland.’ The IRA may express remorse about some individual ‘operations which went wrong,’ but they could never express guilt about their campaign, because they believed and still believe that the campaign was justified. Loyalist paramilitaries will take a similar approach. The unionist parties will never admit that anything they did justified what the IRA visited upon them. The British and Irish state and intelligence forces will say they were forced to use counter-terrorism against loyalists and republicans. And somewhere along the line there will appear a very bland statement about ‘all sides having done wrong’.
But at the end of such a process nothing will have changed. And nothing can change for so long as there is the constant, unending tussle between those who want a united Ireland and those who want to stay in the United Kingdom. You can dress up the political parties in any garb you like, but when push comes to shove and people get to the privacy of the voting booth most will still choose to go with their constitutional head rather than their pluralist heart. So no ‘truth process’ about the Troubles will erase, let alone blur, one very simple electoral truth: namely, those who vote will still vote for parties whose position on the constitutional question is closest to their own.
There, in a nutshell, is our permanent, divisive dilemma. Northern Ireland will remain a place of conflict (albeit not necessarily terrorist in nature) and of us-and-them politics for so long as we cannot agree on the Union versus Unity question. We acknowledged as much when we accepted the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements in 1998 and 2007. Our conflict is unfinished business, which means that we are not yet ready to listen to, or attempt to fully understand the views from the other side of the fence. While the fence and peace walls and turf-marking murals remain in place then for so long will it be impossible to understand what we mean by ‘truth’.
So each side will continue to write their own versions of history and celebrate their own heroes and victories. We will continue (and I’m probably as guilty of this as many others) to whinge about the beam in someone else’s eye while ignoring our own mote. Truth, as I said earlier, will be what we want it to be, what we need it to be. My ‘truth’ and narrative can never be, will never be, the same as that of Gerry Kelly or Martin McGuinness. That may be an unpalatable truth for the Pollyannas of the peace process: nonetheless, it’s the rock-solid, un-budging, bedrock truth of politics here.