How much would it cost to wipe the slate clean?
Anyone paying attention to the news will have noticed a sudden surge of Northern Ireland stories, after the Consultative Group on the Past recommended a payment of £12,000 to the families of all those killed in the Troubles. This proposal [.pdf] has caused a lot of argument, with the Unionist Parties wheeling out widows and such to attack the notion that IRA members killed should be worth the same as policemen or innocent passers-by who were killed.
Personally I think the notion of paying £12,000 to a family for the death of a loved one is a preposterous idea. There are already memorial funds available for the families of those who died so one has to ask, what is this money for? In total the CGoP report documented the total cost of remuneration at £300 million. In Northern Ireland there are surely better things upon which to spend the money? A chronically underfunded series of Education & Library Boards, or our hospitals should be top of the list.
People aren’t going to feel better about a family member being killed simply because they’ve got a bit of money out of it. Mark Simpson, the BBC correspondent had an interesting take on it, however. He said that the tears of a mother are still tears, regardless of which side her dead children were fighting on. Cast like that, almost as an apology from the British government to the mothers of Northern Ireland, then I could live with the expenditure.
Unsurprisingly, the Unionists are completely hypocritical in their selection of Northern Irish history, and disingenuous in the stance that they take. Consider the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, DUP leader:
“The DUP has consistently opposed any equation between the perpetrator of crimes during the Troubles and the innocent victim…Terrorists died carrying out their evil and wicked deeds while innocent men, women and children were wiped out by merciless gangsters.”
Now obviously it would be a mistake to read into the words of Mr Robinson more than he has actually said, but such is the manner of the DUP that when he says terrorists, one can almost hear the subtext, “IRA”. The DUP were notoriously blind to the issue of Loyalist decommissioning of weapons, wrecking the first Assembly and the Ulster Unionist Party over the IRA’s weapons whilst remaining sotto voce on the UVF or its splinter groups.
The real problem with Mr Robinson’s words are actually that the ‘perpetrators of crimes’ during the Troubles were not always part of proscribed terrorist groups. And the victims of the terrorist groups were not always innocent. Undeniably there are a category of innocent people – shoppers, Catholic and Protestant men walking the wrong street at night, taxi drivers, bus drivers and so on, all of whom got caught in the cross fire.
However all of this neglects the Police, the army and the security services and their role in the Troubles – which was never that of Knight in shining armour. Whether the case of the SAS shooting-to-kill the IRA men in Gibraltar, killing unarmed men, any number of similar cases in the province itself, the murder of Pat Finucane or their collusion with the INLA in the murder of Billy Wright, the security services are far from blameless.
I don’t have to agree with Billy Wright, founder of the extremist LVF, born again hypocrite and all round odious man, to oppose his execution. I don’t need to have been brought up in a Catholic family on the Falls to see the unequal behaviour visited by the RUC on Catholics rather than Protestants. And I don’t need to support Bobby Sands or any of his lot to want justice for the murder of Pat Finucane and the role the RUC had in it.
Yet this dark underside to Irish history is completely missing from the Unionist view of four legs good, two legs bad, a fact that is underscored by the widows of RUC officers who have been wheeled out to attack the compensation proposals. My father was a policeman during the Troubles and perhaps had he been murdered by the IRA I’d feel differently, but I hope I wouldn’t. Justice cannot be done in secret, by special tribunal or vigilante or terrorist, something which Barack Obama has underscored for us.
A court may fail to deliver justice, for any number of reasons including the bias of our justice system towards those with money, but at least it is public. It does not usurp the right of the rest of us to watch the proceedings and make up our own minds.
The flawed opposition of the Unionists to the plan, however, does not make the plan any more worthwhile. People have died, and this does have an economic effect. People were injured and likewise this has an economic effect. The loss of livelihood and ability to work can mean the difference between making ends meet and penury, or between the kids going to work or the kids going to university – and that is something which needs addressed.
For the sake of the unity of the country, I think the best way to address it is not via a payment specifically related to the Troubles. It is via a comprehensive social security net – for all the people of Northern Ireland, of whatever faith or political creed. In one of the most depressed parts of the UK, that’s something we don’t have – and which we’ll have less of once water charges are finally introduced, or once the top up fees cap comes off.
With such a plan, we could leave behind the pontificating politicians with their petty point-scoring and actually achieve something worthwhile for all the families of Northern Ireland, whether they are subjectively branded innocent, terrorist, criminal or not.
Then maybe we could criticize some of the more worrying aspects of the CGoP report, such as “no new public inquiries”. This is a country where, potentially over the course of decades, Police, special branch and the security services colluded with terrorists to secure the murder of other terrorists. Or to secure the murder of individuals guilty of no crime other than a specific political allegiance. I’ve mentioned Pat Finucane so we might take his case as a starting point.
The government, under the Inquiries Act 2005, decided to have a secret inquiry. This despite full page adverts in the Times and the US House of Representatives passing a resolution demanding an independent inquiry. And the case of Pat Finucane is just one among many where the involvement of the State is suspect. There’s also the notion, incipient to the report, that an amnesty for past crimes may be considered by this future Legacy Commission, discussed today at the launch.
Truth is not a luxury and we should have the right to bring to justice those men who were responsible for the murder, in her home, of Roseanne Mallon, a 76 year old pensioner. Or the men responsible for any number of Republican bombs which blew apart shops and people in towns and cities from Omagh to London. It is a sad indictment of Northern Irish politics, however, that these parts of the report have been ignored in favour of a Unionist rush to condemn the IRA.
Such rhetoric can’t be worn threadbare quickly enough.