Martin McGuinness’s campaign for the Irish Presidency was badly damaged by being overshadowed by the focus on his IRA past and his possible role in a number of murders.
Sinn Fein’s narrative on the Troubles was contested in the media in a way the party is not used to in Northern Ireland. In the wake of its disappointing performance, leading figures in the party have claimed that the issues of the past and particularly of victims need to be addressed in a systematic way.
While its proposal for an independent international truth commission is unlikely to be acceptable to the British government, some more coherent and balanced way of dealing with the past is needed.
The rationale behind the Eames-Bradley call for some form of Legacy Commission to deal with the past was that without it, past instances of violence and the victims they created would continue to cause polarisation and division as each community focussed on those incidents and victims they considered important.
The danger was that the past would become simply a resource to be mined for ammunition in a continuation of the ‘war’ by another means.
The response of many unionists to these arguments has been generally negative. Unionists tend to fear that ‘truth recovery’ will end up focusing on the agents of the state while neglecting the role of republican and loyalist terrorists. The implicit assumptions and language of those supporting some sort of truth commission have not helped.
Parallels with truth commissions in former military dictatorships in Latin America and with the transition in South Africa where the violence and human rights abuse came predominantly from state agents are inappropriate to Northern Ireland where terrorists were mainly responsible.
The peace process involved democratic politicians making significant political and ethical compromises with the paramilitary organisations in order to get and maintain ceasefires. Part of this process was the acceptance of former terrorists’ narratives and terminology so that those involved in paramilitary organisations are now ‘former combatants’ treated for all intents and purposes as playing a similar role in the Troubles to members of the security forces.
This is a flagrant distortion of history. The Provisionals were responsible for 1,781 deaths during the Troubles whilst the figures for the Army, RUC and UDR are 301, 50 and eight respectively.
From this perspective unionist negativity on proposals to deal with the past is understandable. However, unionists are overly defensive.
It is true that some of those who promote ‘truth recovery’ argue that this is part of a broader process of reconciliation through the emergence of an integrated and broadly acceptable version of the past. Given the depth of disputes over history of Northern Ireland this is most unlikely.
However, it is possible to envisage the creation of mechanisms which, while avoiding overly legalistic and expensive inquiries, would do much to provide a rigorous and comprehensive stock-taking of our past. Owen Paterson’s suggestion of the use of a commission of historians is an interesting and potentially fruitful avenue of progress.
Such an approach would enable us to take the longer term view of what occurred during the Troubles and above all to integrate all the different agencies and individuals involved into the analysis in a balanced and objective way. Without such an approach we will continue to have the knee-jerk and one-sided use of terms like ‘collusion’. Unionists tend to resent the use of the term when used only to refer to the British state and its agents.
Some unionists have pointed to the 1970 Arms Trial in the Republic as an example of collusion on the part of senior Irish politicians and agencies in the creation and arming of the Provisional IRA. The verdict of historians who have written on this episode is less clear-cut.
What is agreed is that two government ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, did favour a direct intervention by the Irish army into Northern Ireland to generate an international incident and force a British rethink on partition.
They did this in the aftermath of serious violence in Londonderry and Belfast in August 1969. The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, strongly opposed any intervention and the army command pointed to their lack of capacity to do more than hold Newry for a few hours given the overwhelming firepower of the British army and local security forces.
Despite this Haughey and Blaney used a substantial portion of the £100,000 which the government had allocated for the relief of northern Catholics displaced by the violence for the clandestine purchase of arms on the continent. These were to be imported into the Republic for transfer to ‘defence committees’ in Northern Ireland. The committees were often controlled by members of the recently formed Provisional IRA.
The main cache of arms was impounded in Antwerp but it is possible that at least some of the relief money was spent on arms and explosives that did reach the Provisionals. At this stage, without the Irish government making more of key documents of the time available it is impossible to come to any definitive conclusion on the episode.
Lynch was forced to sack the key ministers responsible when the former head of the Irish Special Branch leaked the information about the plot to the leader of the opposition in the Dail. However, when the ministers involved and others were arrested and brought to trial the charges against Blaney were dismissed and Haughey and his co-plotters were acquitted.
Lynch, who was personally appalled at the idea of giving guns to IRA men, was hostage to public opinion in the Republic which at that time regarded the IRA not as terrorists but as defenders of beleaguered Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.
He was also a prisoner of the anti-partitionist ideology of the Irish state. The Irish Press, the newspaper supportive of Fianna Fail, was at the time edited by Tim Pat Coogan and saw the outbreak of violence in the North as an opportunity to ‘complete’ the national revolution.
The conditions were being created where for the next quarter of a century the Provisionals were able to exploit the territory of the Republic as a relatively safe haven to evade security forces in the North, plan operations, raise funds and import weapons.
Even when attitudes in the Republic towards Northern Ireland became more realistic, Irish governments were wary of being portrayed as ‘collaborators’ if they took measures to improve cross-border security cooperation with the authorities in the North.
The Provisionals’ use of the territory of the Republic was a direct challenge to successive Irish governments. The IRA killed members of the Irish security forces who got in their way and threatened and intimidated others.
The most damaging event in Martin McGuinness’s presidential campaign came when he was confronted by David Kelly, whose father, an Irish soldier, had been shot dead along with a young garda, when they came upon the gang holding the kidnapped businessman, Don Tidey.
The southern dimension of the Troubles has also been raised by the Historic Enquiries Team investigation into the Kingsmills massacre and the Smithwick Tribunal’s investigation into possible collusion by members of the garda in the deaths of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.
A balanced and comprehensive assessment of the role of the British and Irish states’ role in the Troubles should be a fundamental element in any ‘truth recovery’ process. Both governments could take the lead in this matter by establishing a commission of historians and legal experts to which should be made available all official documents which relate to the violence of the Troubles.
We will never have an agreed version of the history of the Troubles.
However, what such a commission could do was make it impossible to produce one-sided, self-justifying narratives and expect to be taken seriously. It would not be the sole mechanism for dealing with the past but it would be a sure foundation stone.
l Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster