The near impossibility of dealing with our past

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Speaking to BBC’s The View on Thursday the Rev David Latimer, minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church, said that his friendship with Martin McGuinness – his ‘reaching out’ to him, as he describes it – had resulted in up to 30 families leaving his congregation.

“There are people who carry heavy burdens because their loved ones were murdered by the IRA (nine members of his congregation who were in the security forces were murdered) and some of those people find it difficult to accept that I, as a church minister, got friendly with an IRA leader,” he said.

Some people accused Rev David Latimer of being a Sinn Fein 'stooge' because of his friendship with the late Martin McGuinness

Some people accused Rev David Latimer of being a Sinn Fein 'stooge' because of his friendship with the late Martin McGuinness

“Attendances on a Sunday could be 40 or 50 people down on what it was at the peak before I reached out, and that is disappointing. (I have) been accused of dancing on victims’ graves and shaking hands with a man whose hands were stained with blood. I could never have appreciated the price you have to pay for engaging in peace would be so high.”

The following day the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, launched a public consultation: Addressing The Legacy Of Northern Ireland’s Past. “The people have been very clear to me in Northern Ireland – the way to address the legacy of the past, the way to address the legacy of the Troubles, is for people to go through this process of understanding what happened, for victims to find out the truth and to see justice being done. That is what people have been clear they want; they don’t want to draw a line in the sand and pretend it never happened. They want to deal with it this way and that’s what I support.”

I suspect that many of the people who withdrew from Rev Latimer’s congregation did so because they believed he had made some sort of personal decision to draw a line in the sand. At the time – and later, when he addressed Sinn Fein’s ard fheis in Belfast in 2011 and took part in election rallies when McGuinness stood in the Irish presidential election – there were many across the broader unionist community who were angry with him: “He’s just another stooge being played by Sinn Fein,” was how one person put it to me.

I don’t doubt Latimer’s integrity or sincerity. He did what he believed was the right thing to do. I did the same thing myself when I voted Yes in the Good Friday Agreement referendum, even though some people told me that it would never be possible to move forward here until, “We have a handle on truth and reconciliation and terrorists – from both sides – understand what is expected of them when democracy kicks in.” But my fundamental position hasn’t shifted since 1998: drawing a line in the sand is the wrong thing to do.

The trouble with drawing a line is that it always seems to be accompanied by the notion that somehow or other – and occasionally I think some of its proponents are just hoping for a miracle – everything will sort itself out. Some younger people – with barely a notion of what the Troubles were – imagine that if all these pesky people with long memories and physical and psychological scars would just shut up or pass on, then we’d have a veritable Utopia within weeks.

Paramilitaries are more interested in trying to explain why bombing and shooting were the only alternatives available to them. And others, the most naive of all, hope that if we don’t talk about it (and the ‘we’ they mean is the media and columnists like me) at all and do nothing but chant the Peppa Pig mantra – ’Peace and harmony, bing, bong, bing’ – everything will be lovely.

Progress depends on a number of things: collective agreement on a collective future; a stable, cooperative government at the centre; genuine choice between incoming and outgoing governments; an agreed narrative about the past; an admission of previous wrongs; a credible truth process; clear evidence for victims and their families that the sources of the conflict have been addressed and removed; demonstrable evidence of a drawing together within society; a recognition that paramilitaries and their campaigns should not be the subject of commemoration and murals etc; rock-solid proof that democratic politics trumps everything else; and a collective acceptance that there must be a better way of ‘doing’ politics than there used to be.

This, by the way, isn’t an exhaustive list. Many of you would want to add to it. Some of you would put it in a different order and insist that some things be dealt with before others. Some will be concerned that it’s ‘weak’ on justice and punishment. Many of you will have concerns about possible parallels between terrorists and security forces. In drawing it up I’m simply highlighting the potentially huge range of issues that need to be dealt with. And maybe it’s the sheer scale of that range which leads some to argue that it might be easier to draw a line and start afresh.

But there’s always going to be an issue that even drawing a line and holding out a hand of friendship won’t resolve. Republicans will still want a united Ireland. Unionists will still want a United Kingdom. Both sides will continue to prioritise that above and beyond all else. And when there is no agreement on the future geographical/political/constitutional future of the country coming out of conflict, then it will be extraordinarily difficult – in my opinion, probably impossible – to deal with, let alone address, the legacy of our past. The past is always in front of us. The latest consultation is going nowhere. There will, at the end of it, be no understanding, no truth, no justice, no societal breakthrough and no reconciliation.