Parties need to tell the truth

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Ok, let’s be honest: was anyone surprised by the Hallett report?

The day she was appointed to the role I was in a television studio and, in response to a question about what she might come up with, replied, “this will end like most of these things do, with both sides saying that their original position has been vindicated”.

Well, that certainly seems to be the case for now.

Apparently anyone keeping a close eye on events here should have been able to have joined up the dots and concluded that something like the OTR letters existed.

Hmm, that’s very Sherlockian—“from a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other”.

Yet if that’s what Justice Hallett really believes, why write that she had “detected no sinister motive in the failure to notify the minister for justice, the first minister and the Policing Board of the scheme”?

Indeed, why confirm that no party, other than Sinn Fein, knew the full details of the scheme?

She adds, “the hope seems to have been that the scheme could be brought quietly to a close without generating the kind of controversy we have seen in recent months. Whether that was a wise policy is for others to decide”.

It’s the use of the word ‘quietly’ that unsettles me. And it unsettles me because it smacks of the secrecy that surrounds so much of what goes on behind the scenes. In other words, what people don’t know (even though Sherlock Holmes or professional logicians could have worked it out — apparently!) shouldn’t be of any concern to them.

So better, it seems, to let things ‘come to a close’ rather than generate controversy. Better, it seems, to let OTR’s continue with the belief that their letters remained a stay-out-of-jail comfort for them.

Here’s my very simple, very uncomplicated view of matters: if only one side in a conflict is told the full details of something — and they believe that that ‘something’ is entirely to their advantage — then at some later point something very big and very smelly is going to collide with a very large fan.

I’m no wiser now about most of this stuff than I was when the story first broke. I don’t know who knew and who didn’t know.

I don’t know why OTRs were left with the impression that they were free to come and go without fear of arrest.

I don’t know why some people insist that all of this was known — albeit mostly below the radar — yet no one seems to be able to produce an actual copy of the deal, arrangement, understanding or pact.

There’s a lovely scene in Yes Prime Minister when Jim Hacker, handed a document by Sir Humphrey Appleby complains, “but I don’t understand a word of this, Humphrey”.

“Oh, thank you Prime Minister.”

Lady Hallett’s report falls into that sort of territory. As does the comment from former Secretary of State Paul Murphy to the NI Select Committee last week: “My knowledge of it was pretty slim, if at all, but I won’t deny that I saw it, but I can’t say that I remember it.”

We have a problem dealing with truth in Northern Ireland. Partly because it’s very difficult to know what the truth is when all you have is a permanent stalemate rather than an actual solution; and partly because neither side believes, let alone trusts, the other side.

And those who argue that we should “just park our differences and move on together” won’t get truth, either. They also won’t get progress, because progress is not possible in the absence of truth.

Good government is not possible without truth. Institutional stability is not possible without truth. Power-sharing (in any meaningful sense of the term) is not possible without truth.

New era politics is not possible without truth. A shared vision, shared future and shared society are not possible without truth.

Agreeing to disagree on some things, or reaching a useful compromise on others is important and necessary for any coalition government. But failing to reach any key decisions on the big-ticket stuff undermines the credibility of government and conveys the impression that progress is not, in fact, possible.

Yes, the Executive and individual ministers can make decisions on some issues, but they tend to be the issues that a Secretary of State and direct rule ministers could make without even bothering to fly over. But the really big decisions — the decisions that would change Northern Ireland and move us to a better place — are not being made because a lack of truth makes it impossible for them to be made.

Yet there is also a ‘truth’ about truth that we need to face — it is often ugly, unpleasant, unpalatable and potentially unhelpful.

More important, it will always come out. No matter how hard we try to bury it or ignore it or ‘bring it quietly to a close without generating controversy,’ it will always rear its head at some point.

So the choice we face is a stark one. If the people and parties are serious about good government (government that makes a real difference to their everyday lives and hopes) and the genuine sharing of power (with the Executive working together for a common agenda), then we need to start telling the truth to each other.

No more secrets, no more side deals, no more playing only to your own gallery and no more need for inquiries and reports into what may or may not have happened in the political undergrowth.

Or — and I did say we had a choice — we keep going as we are and accept the most difficult truth of all: which is that we really don’t like each other, don’t want to work together and won’t ever have a common agenda or purpose. I suspect the latter represents the unvarnished truth of our situation.

So, to those of you getting good A Levels in the next couple of weeks: pack your bags and take your talents to somewhere that will appreciate them as well as giving you the chance to integrate and grow.