Wednesday 16 June 2010

On remembering and forgetting in Northern Ireland

"Irish history is something no Englishman should forget and no Irishman should remember", wrote George Bernard Shaw 106 years ago.

The sense that there is at least a pinch of wisdom in his quip has grown considerably, not least since both sides have spent most of the period since he published John Bull's Other Island refusing their allotted roles. If it too flippant a remark to be an entirely appropriate response to the Bloody Sunday inquiry report, the events of yesterday also made Shaw's case.

It has been for the British to focus on uncovering and stating the truth. David Cameron's strong and dignified House of Commons statement, solemnly accepting responsibility for the "unjustified and unjustifiable" killings of citizens by soldiers acting in the name of the British state unequivocally owned the shocking (yet, by now, predictable) results of the inquiry in a way which spoke to the necessity of British remembering. Indeed, it was the clarity and authority (and so the very expensive, much lamented, comprehensiveness) of the Saville report's findings which muted the 'whataboutery' those asking 'why so much fuss about these killings and not others?

It has been the response of the families of the victims, and Derry's broader Catholic community which provides grounds for hope that the report may now provide closure. Certainly, the long campaign of the victim's families for the truth, and the exoneration of the deceased, speaks to the importance and value of their persistence and remembering too. Yet the sight of the large Derry crowd warmly applauding the words of the British Prime Minister suggested that official public acknowledgement of the truth - which would now be "the verdict of history of all time" - and the ability of the families to declare their relatives innocent of the slurs of the Widgery report, took priority yesterday over the question of future prosecutions of the perpetrators. The mood was one of catharsis, not of vengeance.

Yesterday it seemed, perhaps against expectations even over the last few days, that the report might prove more significant as a moment of reconciliation than another occasion for an auction between competing grievances about past wrongs, among those on any side who will only ever want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the hurt caused within one community while always blaming the victims within the other.

Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan puts the essential point against those who would diminish the particular significance of Bloody Sunday:

Some commentators opposed the whole idea of reopening the wretched episode. Why such a disproportionate focus on Bloody Sunday? they asked. What about Bloody Friday? What about Birmingham and Warrington and Shankill and Crossmaglen and a hundred other IRA murders? Why should we even consider of prosecuting British Servicemen when we have freed hundreds of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries?

The answer, surely, is that our soldiers are not to be judged by the same standard as terrorist bombers. They operate according to the rule of law. This is basis of their legitimacy and, indeed, of Britain’s jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. When rules are broken, there must be consequences. It is creditable that we should support British Servicemen. But we do not support them by taking, as it were, an anti-Dreyfusard position, refusing to admit that our soldiers can ever be in the wrong.

The individuals killed were innocent. They were marching for civil rights. To somehow regard the deaths of those killed as to be weighed in the balance against any acts perpetrated by any of their co-religionists, is to succumb to the mentality of an endless and inescapable civil war.

Yes, those killed were part of a community - two communities - often involved in a deep, complex and often tragic clash between two competing identities, two incompatible histories and two deeply felt sets of grievances often asserted to be irreconciliable. But the task of politics is to prove that claim wrong. The (fragile) achievement of politics is that it may be winning.

So there is already an emerging (if not universal) consensus that the inquiry was an important and necessary act on the part of the British state. That is right. But there may even be a danger of a congratulatory complacency creeping in. A classic "bad apples" theory of the actions of individual soliders ignores the scale of the official cover-up. (Indeed the perjury continued through this inquiry, and may provide the hardest question for prosecutors).

The hard truth is also that peace processes do often make a trade-off between peace and justice, as the release of those guilty of terrorist murders and atrocities demonstrates. The case for this inquiry was that the trade-off should not be made conveniently with the truth itself, but rather in what is done in the knowledge of it. It is ultimately necessary to remember and acknowledge if we are ever to forget.

Bloody Sunday began with a civil rights march of Northern Ireland's Catholics to protest their being treated as second class citizens. The point was tragically proved not just by the recklessness which killed thirteen people but, perhaps above all, by the state's lack of concern after the event to account seriously or honestly for their deaths.

It may have taken 38 years but, unlike the killings themselves, that was a wrong which could be put right. Bloody Sunday and the subsequent cover-up was an episode which has brought shame on British justice. As a day of necessary atonement, yesterday was finally also a good day for British justice and, it is to be hoped, for Northern Ireland too.


Gareth said...

George Bernard Shaw agreed with Marx's justification of ethnic genocide according to this film.

13eastie said...

Blair's £200m gift from the taxpayer to Northern Ireland's ambulance-chasing solicitors was an utter folly.

Notwithstanding the outrageous cost (which ought itself, perhaps, to be the subject of an inquiry), Blair's misapprehension that a report commissioned just as the peace process was bearing fruit would, a dicey twelve years on, bring "closure" was hopelessly naive.

It may actually achieve quite the opposite.

On the mainland we'll accept Saville's findings (some for no other reason than that this has gone on long enough now).

But the Sinn Fein leadership's response lacks any conciliatory tone.

Martin McGuinness was singled out by Saville as having been a PIRA officer, involved in paramilitary activies and armed with a sub-machine-gun (the use of which was not ruled out) on the day.

McGuinness, a senior member of an organisation responsible for more murders in the UK than any other in history, can expect to continue to enjoy the amnesty we afford to republican terrorists, drawing as he does, hundreds of thousands of pounds each year for work he refuses to do. Likewise Mr Adams.

We tolerate this state of affairs (a dreadful precedent, which reflects dismally on the 'Mother of Democracies') only out of pragmatism — it would be to your credit to acknowledge the generosity of the majority of Britons in this regard when you reflect on Saville's findings.

The prospect of the criminal trials you now usher in with celebration [you've already started to prepare the charges!] is good news for no-one outside the legal profession.

The track record for such cases is not good. You can be certain that neither Pte Clegg nor the relatives of his car-thief assailants got satisfaction from the criminal justice system.

The spirit of retribution is one to which many young people have had relatively little exposure hitherto; this is the only foundation for peace. Its rekindling is therefore perilous.

No-one seeks to dispute the findings of the report. Sensible people also recognise that there have been many other grisly days in Ulster's history for which there has been no atonement.

The diametric opposition of the standards you seem to wish to see imposed in its aftermath does not serve the interest of peace: it reeks of hypocrisy.

Sunder Katwala said...


I was trying to say that my sense is that prosecutions would be a bad idea. I was struck by the families appearing to place emphasis primarily on exoneration as cathartic, and seemed to give that priority over the question of prosecutions.

That was what was intended by "The case for this inquiry was that the trade-off should not be made conveniently with the truth itself, but rather in what is done in the knowledge of it".

The distinction I was making was only that perjury at the inquiry may present a more difficult dilemma than the actions of the soldiers in 1972 themselves.

And I agree with the thrust of most of what you say about Sinn Fein and Martin McGuiness, and the pragmatic accomodation of that. I am personally very sceptical about deep green strands and myths of Irish nationalism. For me, that has been informed by having an interest in Irish history, partly on the grounds of having some Irish lineage myself.

Unknown said...

There has been no "amnesty" for paramilitary groups as such. Under the Belfast Agreement there's an early release scheme. The beneficiaries have all had to face the families of their victims, they have been formally found guilty and sentenced, have in most cases served at least some times, and are now only released on license. There were also many paramilitaries who completed long prison terms before the scheme came in.

The historical inquiries team is currently re-investigating all of the murders committed during the Troubles and as I understand it there is no bar on fresh prosecutions of terrorists, if enough evidence is found.

I see no reason to go beyond the terms of the Belfast Agreement and invent an amnesty for British soldiers or anyone else. The early release scheme was a necessary evil in order to achieve peace; there is no justification for exceeding its terms to grant immunity to callous murderers like "Soldier F".

The families deserve, at the very least, to have the soldiers named and shamed and forced to answer the charges in court. If the soldiers then want to argue for early release from their sentences then so be it.

An amnesty would also be admitting, essentially, that the British army as a whole are equivalent to the terrorists. We shouldn't want that.

Unknown said...

"On the mainland we'll accept Saville's findings"

Why do Britons insist on using this silly term, offensive to many, when the larger of the two isles already has a perfectly good name: Great Britain.

That's why the UK is called the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Ireland is the smaller of two land masses. It is not some tiny satellite like the Isle of White. If it has a "mainland" it is Europe.

13eastie said...


OK and thanks for the explanation - we rarely agree (and we shouldn't expect to do so habitually), but on an issue this important it seems we mostly do and I'm thankful for that...


I don't think anyone did call for any amnesty, did they? I merely pointed out that republican murderers not yet called to trial probably sleep a good deal easier since the Good Friday Agreement.

The simple truth is that there is a de facto amnesty in place, which, in every practical sense, is massively in the interest of the young people of Northern Ireland. (Republican outrages far outnumber others in this regard, by the way).

Certainly I am not aware of any cases being prosecuted for crimes committed prior the Agreement in the furtherance of any bodies party to it.

If you honestly believe such an amnesty (the purpose of which was never a flight from justice, but the basis for a healing process) will show "the British army as a whole are [sic] equivalent to the terrorists" then I can only suppose your practical experience of any of this is nil.

Around 250,000 men have served in Northern Ireland, often enduring month-long patrols, in constant range of enemy snipers concealed in buildings otherwise inhabited by their own countrymen and families. Around 1% of lads sent there died there eventually.

A good many such soldiers were transferred to operations in the province on their 18th birthdays.

All but a tiny handful rose to the very peculiar challenges of carrying out military operations while facing no foreign enemy with honour, often showing the greatest restraint in the most provocative of environments.

One who suggests otherwise might say a great deal more about himself than he does about anybody else.

Continuing with your rather odd digression (and worrying failure to grasp the point), but happy to move onto something more light-hearted, the terminology of the British Isles ‒ outside of international rugby, that is what they are still called ‒ is (quaintly and elegantly, in my opinion) rife with curiosities arising from our colourful history. The odd unsavoury literary character has espoused a reduction in our vocabulary, but I happen to feel, given the richness of our language and its manifold origins, that it is only befitting that the treasures within our shores are known by more names than the Eskimos are reputed to give to snow.

At the risk of pursuing your completely silly semantic tangent, but since I'm perfectly happy for people to say "Derry" or "Londonderry" as they prefer, and while I merrily concede that I doubt anyone will ever persuade me to call the "North Sea" the "German Sea", if you wish to replace my "mainland" with your "Great Britain", then go for it, but since only "Great Britain" was party to the Treaty of Versailles, might I then ask how you propose to continue to engage Mainland Shetland, Hoy, Anglesey etc. separately in the current war with Germany?

Yours is the type of pathetic and infantile failure to contain "offence" that holds back the progress that is the least our kids deserve.

I'll call the piece of land I inhabit (Albion on this occasion) whatever the hell I like, thank you. And (by way of a final Anglo-Saxon flourish) you are a tit.

Unknown said...

@13 Eastie

You make some valid points. But you don't seem to be able to hold a civil, adult conversation, with someone who happens to holds views different to your own, without descending to childish insults. So I'll sign off; before I got bored and you give yourself an ulcer.