Barry McElduff’s callous mockery of the Kingsmills victims has unwittingly highlighted a question that goes to the very heart of our future in Northern Ireland and across this island. Will we focus on building relationships and uniting people, or will we perpetuate the hatreds and mistakes of the past, deepening our divisions instead?
Kingsmills was the most terrible of crimes and it was, despite their denial, carried out by the IRA. It was one of many atrocities carried out by that movement, whose position is that while it regrets the tragedies and hurt that it caused, it feels its actions were necessary and justified.
By that logic, as a society we’d need to accept the actions of loyalist paramilitaries and members of the police and army who acted outside the law were also defensible.
Our position on this fundamental point will determine the course of our future and whether there’s potential for more conflict, despite the hard compromises so many from across our society have made.
When I asked the late Maurice Hayes about his view of republican violence, he told me: “There was nothing achieved through violence that couldn’t otherwise have been achieved through peaceful means.” That’s a sound principle, that applies equally to the actions of loyalists and any actions of members of the police and army that were outside the law.
There were many things wrong with Northern Ireland, as there were in most societies, but they could have been addressed through normal democratic means.
Violence was never going to unite constitutionally the people of Ireland, or make nationalists feel more welcome in Northern Ireland.
Nor would the methods have been justified, even if they had brought their political aims closer.
Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, it’s surely time to start rebuilding the relationships on this island we got so badly wrong in the past. Could we really have got them more wrong?
The crucial foundation for reconciling our society is a shared recognition that criminal violence was always unnecessary, wrong and unjustified, from wherever it came, and a clear commitment that it must never be used again.
On that basis, we can have a genuine, full, and open discussion about what is possible to support the construction of good relationships, whether in Northern Ireland or across this whole island.
In such an environment we can really look at how we deal with the crimes of the past, recognising the context in which they were carried out and addressing the deeply flawed leadership that led so many people into conflict.
Then, at last, we will be able to say with sincerity to the families of Kingsmills, La Mon, Greysteele, Loughinisland, Narrow Water and so many others, that what happened to you will never happen again.