Alex Kane: Ever-present past that is compromising our future

A David Ervine mural in east Belfast. He showed a willingness to accept his mistake in becoming involved in loyalist paramilitarism
A David Ervine mural in east Belfast. He showed a willingness to accept his mistake in becoming involved in loyalist paramilitarism
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“Had I been a teenager on Bloody Sunday I probably would have joined the IRA. I would have considered taking that final step which is what happened to hundreds of young Catholic men and women on and after Bloody Sunday. I do not support the IRA, I do not support violence. What I have always tried to do is to get inside the minds of people who choose to adopt that particular path.”

Those comments from the journalist Peter Taylor have stirred up something of a hornet’s nest and, not surprisingly, have been greeted with anger by some and a ‘maybe you can understand now why the IRA had to do what it did’ response from others.

Responding on the Nolan Show I said it was clear that thousands of people – within both republicanism and loyalism – had been radicalised by general and specific events, particularly in the early-mid 1970s. That is a fact of history, and the link between being radicalised/traumatised and joining terror organisations is not confined to Northern Ireland.

But what about the 99% of us who didn’t take that particular path in Northern Ireland; including the countless thousands who were injured and traumatised? The people left behind after the attack or explosion? The people who have spent years acting as carers? The people who lost close friends, family friends, school friends, work colleagues? The people who still look at an empty chair and silent bedroom every day? The hundreds of thousands seated around radios and televisions during the darkest days, listening, with growing anger, to awful news? Maybe we need to find a way of getting inside the minds of those who never went to the dark, bloody side of history. Maybe, instead of ‘understanding’ why people joined terrorist groups, we need to focus on the vast majority who chose not to compound faults and add to the bloodshed?

As it happens, I do understand how and why people got sucked into terrorism. They chose to. It was always their choice. Circumstances may have been awful, but they need to remember that they chose a path which the vast majority of their friends and neighbours chose to reject. They chose to become a terrorist. They chose to be trained in bomb-making, use of weapons, targeting of people and deciding the lives to be ended on a particular day in a particular place. It was their choice to kill, maim and intimidate. Their choice to become judge, jury and executioner. Their choice to replicate and continue the very thing which had fuelled their own radicalisation.

I remember sitting in David Ervine’s office in Stormont about a year after he had been elected as an MLA. He had invited me there to meet a couple of people who were ‘trying to use their own experiences to ensure that the next generation never followed their footsteps into loyalist paramilitarism’. He knew that he had gone down the wrong path and I never doubted that his regret was genuine; or that he was trying to make amends for decisions he had made as a much younger man. But like many others I have talked to before and since – and not just on the loyalist side, either – he believed that he had no choice at the time. He did, of course, have another choice. Joining a terrorist group is not something you do lightly or accidentally.

But, as I say, I accepted that David’s regret was genuine. I’ve heard many variations of the ‘if I’d known then what I know now’ conversations and I’ve spoken to many, many people who I believe have since done their best to atone for very bad, very stupid choices. What troubles me, though, is that expressions of regret and clear evidence of atonement sit very uncomfortably with what sometimes look like the daily commemorations to remember the ‘fallen comrades’ of an assortment of terrorist groups. Remembering and honouring ‘volunteers’ from the IRA, UDA, UVF et al carries a very clear sense of justifying the choice they made. Even Peter Taylor’s comments about probably joining the IRA because of Bloody Sunday will be interpreted by some as a ‘justification’ of and for the IRA.

Regular readers will be aware of my view that the past is always in front of us here in Northern Ireland. This week alone has given us three examples: Peter Taylor saying what he might have chosen to do 47 years ago; Martina Anderson’s ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ reference to the death of Bobby Sands in 1981; and various events to mark the beginning of Operation Banner in 1969. We focus on the past because the future seems to be on hold, while the present is the same-old, same-old played out on continuous loop.

Meanwhile, the police and intelligence services are concerned about the rise in activity by dissident republicans and the ongoing presence of loyalist paramilitarism (particularly the UVF) in a number of areas. That’s one manifestation of an active past. Stormont isn’t functioning because a deal seems extraordinarily difficult to pull together (although the leaderships of both the DUP and Sinn Fein are still trying below the radar). That’s another manifestation of an active past. The relationships between North and South and East and West are more fractious than they’ve been since the early 1980s. That’s another manifestation of an active past. There’s a real, all-pervading sense of political drift. Another sign of an active past.

We talk a lot about the ‘legacy issue’. It will remain no more than an issue until we actually get to grips with the past in both its personal and collective forms. We need to find a way of escaping from it, rather than always embedding ourselves in it. All sides will have to face very uncomfortable truths about their own past, truths they have deliberately hidden. There’s a key lesson from history: failure to deal with the past will, inevitably, damn and probably bloody your future.