Home > General Politics, Religion > How much would it cost to wipe the slate clean?

How much would it cost to wipe the slate clean?

Peter RobinsonAnyone 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.

Categories: General Politics, Religion
  1. January 29, 2009 at 12:27 am

    I dislike referring to this period as “the Troubles” – it makes me think of having an upset stomach. It’s beside the point I suppose, but it seems like a way of disguising the seriousness of the situation.

    Lost in all of this is the six counties’ future. Will the British state renounce its claim to this territory? If not, would the payment be a way of winning acceptance, “Ireland will remain divided, but without the tensions of the past”?

    You will have probably heard the story of Noel Coward admonishing a waitress who had dropped a tray, to the effect that if she was going to make so much noise then she should have at least broken something. I have a similar feeling about Irish Republicanism: the British state at least has the decency to station more troops in the six counties than it has in Iraq. What of Sinn Fein’s commitment to a 32 county socialist republic?

    The socialist response to this proposed payment scheme should be to point out the need for collective investment in the people of the six counties to help heal old wounds, not individual payments that will divide people and cause more suffering.

  2. January 29, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Er…right. Well first of all, the term “the Troubles” dates from (I believe) the early 20th Century when, I suppose, the spats between Protestants and Catholics weren’t as serious as some of the other conflicts which the British Empire cast itself into head first.

    The question of the future of Northern Ireland, and please, call it Northern Ireland – you’re not a member of Sinn Fein – is deliberately left to one side. This is because on the basis of two independent, capitalist nationstates, the future cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of both Nationalists and Unionists.

    The country cannot both be part of the UK and part of the Republic. It is, however, taking on many characteristics that render that less important, such as the move of Fianna Fail north of the border to link up with the SDLP, or the move of the Conservatives to link up with their old allies in the UUP.

    It remains to be seen, of course, whether this blurring of national boundaries will really put the question of sovereignty to rest or whether it is stoking up trouble for the future, when some unforeseen incident causes the breakdown of consensus government and the return of direct rule and potentially of soldiers to the streets of Northern Ireland.

    The DUP have played things very smart; they have basically turned everything Melanie Phillips has ever said about our culture being under threat into a political ideology and aimed it at Catholic Nationalism. Coupled with a born-again fanaticism this is a deadly instrument, but it is doubled-edged. I think the DUP are using up whatever prestige they’ve gained by dealing with Sinn Fein, and eventually, like the UUP, they too will be superseded.

    All of this has to be pointedly ignored, the white elephant in the room if you like, because to say otherwise would be to open the veins of devolved government, and the political parties which support it. And the British and Irish governments need those parties to support it, to keep the population quiet. It’s basically the 21st century version of the Romans buying off the local aristocrats of their conquered provinces.

    Moving on to the subject of British soldiers, actually there is only a 1,500 garrison force active in NI at the moment. All other troops have been slowly withdrawn since 1998, and the formal remit of the British Army in Northern Ireland expired in July 2007. Not quite sure how that fits into your Coward analogy, or the relevance of said analogy.

    And so far as I know, the socialist response HAS been to call for collective investment, as I did.

  3. January 30, 2009 at 2:22 am

    The Cowards analogy was directed as Sinn Fein rather than the British state, as it happens. I should think it’s fairly obvious how it works: dropping tray of dishes (the Provos use of armed struggle, terrorist bombing campaigns) with the lack of a breakage (the famous “32 county socialist republic” SF would reference as a goal).

    Look, it *is* “the six counties”, I don’t care who uses the term, it is the correct term. Northern Ireland makes it sound like one is describing the actual region of northern Ireland – which is not the case, obviously.

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