Whether to probe the past, and if so how, is a political decision

Morning View
Morning View

Fifteen years after the creation of the PSNI, the chief constable George Hamilton has said that it would be a “huge mistake” to stall on establishing structures to deal with so-called legacy issues.

In a seminar at Queen’s University to mark the anniversary, Mr Hamilton spoke bluntly. “Work continues on the Historical Investigations Unit and the other mechanisms for dealing with the past which were laid out in the Fresh Start Agreement,” he said.

“So there are signs of optimism as we refocus to the future, but it will be a huge mistake – and I say this with Executive ministers present– it will be a huge mistake to stall progress on these proposals, a mistake that neither policing nor our society can afford.”

Note that his observation seems not to have been a spontaneous one, blurted out in a manner that he might immediately come to regret. On the contrary, he makes explicit his awareness that he is expressing a view in front of ministers who have to take the relevant decisions.

Mr Hamilton might be one of the most outspoken public officials to make comments along those lines about legacy issues, but he is not the first.

What makes some servants of the state feel that they can stray on to political terrain?

There is, for example, a view that the past is so contentious that there is no way of fairly dealing with it and is better left alone. It is not a view that this newspaper shares, but it is an entirely legitimate one.

Yet the logic of Mr Hamilton’s comments is that he feels entitled to say that such a view is wrong.

We believe that the past is important but it must not become one in which the heroism of RUC officers, the army, courts, civil servants and intelligence services in keeping society going amid a grave terrorist threat is overlooked or even turned on its head.

Our view is also a political one, which we as a newspaper are entitled, or even expected, to express. Nationalists have another view, as they too are entitled to have.

But these are matters to be decided politically, and public servants who must be seen to be neutral should keep their own views private.