Bitter legacy means Northern Ireland needs a South African-style truth commission

It's the only mechanism by which its people can put the Troubles behind them once and for all

Family members of the victims gesture as they pose for a picture following a news conference after listening to the findings of the report on the fatal shootings of 10 people in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in 1971 that involved the British Army, in Ballymurphy, Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyn
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Imagine the pain of a daughter, whose mother was killed by army bullets in 1971, having to plead her innocence in front of television cameras this year.

That has been the experience of Briege Voyle, one of eight children of Joan Connolly, a woman from Belfast who was killed in the Ballymurphy Massacre 50 years ago. It was only last week that a judge ruled that the 10 people shot by British Army paratroopers, including Mrs Connolly, were "entirely innocent". They had been killed after an operation was launched against members of the Irish Republican Army.

It is natural and only right that a state should seek to acknowledge both its wrongdoing and responsibility when innocent people are killed by its forces. Yet in Northern Ireland, that is a deeply controversial issue – hence the five-decade wait.

With more than 3,000 killed in the 30 years of the so-called Troubles that began in 1968, critics carp that the process is nothing but dredging the past and thus debilitating the present. One Belfast author maintains that the truth about that past is an unattainable quest. "We need to stop lying to people about the truth," said Brian Rowan, author of Political Purgatory, a book that documents the failure of politics following the peace process between the pro-British Unionists and Nationalists.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 11: Briege Voyle, daughter of the late Joan Connolly pictured at a press conference at Corpus Christi youth club following the findings of the Ballymurphy Inquest on May 11, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The inquest, which began in November 2018, has examined the deaths of 10 civilians who were shot and fatally injured by soldiers in and around the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in August 1971, the incident is known as the Ballymurphy massacre. The killings happened during an Army operation which followed the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland. The victims included a priest trying to tend to one of the wounded and a mother of eight, an 11th victim, Pat McCarthy, died of a heart attack and is not the subject of the inquest. At the time, the British army claimed they had been shooting at terrorists in Ballymurphy, and the dead were either gunmen or had been caught in the crossfire. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Briege Voyle, daughter of the late Joan Connolly, following the findings of the Ballymurphy Inquest in Belfast last week. Getty Images

The problem in Northern Ireland could be wearily boiled down to old sores. When something is deeply felt by one side of the Catholic-Protestant sectarian divide, it antagonises or is neuralgic to the others.

Protestants don’t share the visceral reaction that Catholics experience when something like the Ballymurphy Inquest lays out injustice. If the spotlight shifts to a massacre of Protestants, such as the Kingsmill Massacre, then flickers of the same demands for a reckoning burst into life. The families of the 10 victims of that 1976 ambush by Republicans still wait for the suspects to be named in a formal process.

Moreover, these concerns grip the public imagination in quick succession. The week before the Ballymurphy Inquest saw the controversial collapse of a trial of soldiers now aged in their 70s and long since rotated out of Northern Ireland.

To address the concerns of MPs in the UK on the matter, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used Queen Elizabeth II's speech on Tuesday to promise a law that would stop prosecutions for incidents before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Allegations immediately followed that this was an escape hatch for veterans and a demonstration of how and why London is not to be trusted. Mr Johnson then raised hackles yet further with a backhanded statement on Ballymurphy, not speaking to camera but dribbling out a statement in two parts.

Almost more prevalent than discussions about taxes, education or health is the word "legacy" in Northern Ireland. Legacy consists of a piecemeal, disputed rotation between trials in the courts, full-scale commissions such as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and belated inquests that keep the Troubles ever present for the people there and beyond.

The alternative would be to have a South African-style pursuit of the truth, advocated by former British prime minister Tony Blair and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain, two men instrumental in the Good Friday Agreement.

A platform for victims and perpetrators to have their say would obviously last a long time and have its own consequences. But to proponents, it would at least represent the beginning of the end. It would be a vehicle to allow information recovery and reconciliation. The damaging “cycle of investigations” would be broken.

FILE - In this April 10, 1998, file photo, from right, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, pose together after they signed the Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. The chaotic scenes during a week of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland have stirred memories of decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, known as "The Troubles." A 1998 peace deal ended large-scale violence but did not resolve Northern Ireland's deep-rooted tensions. (AP Photo/File)
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, former US senator George Mitchell and former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern after signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Blair has since called for a truth commission to address grievances in Northern Ireland. AP Photo
People take part at the opening session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on April 15, 1996 at East London. The commission is probing apartheid-era human rights abuses. (Photo by Philip LITTLETON / AFP)
People take part at the opening session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on April 15, 1996 at East London. AFP

Last week, Mr Blair said that he would have done it 20 years ago when he was in power but could not build enough consent for the idea. He believes the current set-up does not resolve the pain and never will.

Perhaps it will allow a wider set of considerations to get an airing, too. This would include the people who lived in mixed cross-sectarian communities but ripped out of their homes by violence. For the children of the 1970s and 1980s, this was an often formative experience. It may also drip-by-drip force those who have closed their ears to the other side to listen.

Of course, if it was easy it would have been done. But the nature of violence in Northern Ireland was different. It wasn’t just the state versus the single rebel movement. A framework that adequately encompassed all the sources of violence would be hard to construct and even harder to maintain.

Peace and reconciliation experts have concluded that such a process cannot be successful without an upfront amnesty for potential crimes of its participants. After all, without drawing the hardmen to the witness stands, a truth and reconciliation commission is only another discussion panel.

A statute of limitations on prosecutors going after the people who pulled the trigger or the commander who gave the orders amounts to simply addressing immediate grievances surrounding activist lawyers and one-sided justice. Amnesties commit a society to a post-conflict future with the sins of the past out there and relegated to a lockbox.

In different ways both proposals require leadership that does not currently exist, either within Northern Ireland or in London. With its future unresolved between remaining in the UK or shifting to the All-Ireland destiny, the north is in a vulnerable place.

Roadblocks of the mind, meanwhile, continue closing in. Legacy is a bitter pill that cannot be swallowed.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National