Almost a month has passed since politicians reached a new agreement on Northern Ireland’s political future. For the victims of the conflict, though, ‘Fresh Start’ is a false start. If the politicians were serious in addressing the legacy of the past, then the agreement represents another glaring and ignominious failure.
The latest accord was fairly comprehensive; it encompassed welfare ‘reform’, paramilitarism, cross-border crime, corporation tax and other financial measures. Rather embarrassingly it even addressed the issue of tax credits (whose planned introduction was abandoned by the Conservative government within days). But there was no agreement on our violent, often shameful, history.
The past is a rock that no one wants to look under. Not the British government. Not the paramilitaries. Nobody except those who lost loved ones; those who were injured or maimed; those who believe in truth and justice; those who believe in the primacy of law and the importance of democracy. Nobody who matters.
The truth is that any of the protagonists could act unilaterally and address the past. They won’t. They could choose to shed some light on one of the darkest periods in our history. They won’t.
That shouldn’t surprise us where paramilitary organisations are concerned; neither should it surprise us where the British government is concerned. But, it should concern us.
When the Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers, Harry Potter-like draws the invisibility cloak of ‘national security’ around her, we are entitled to wonder what secrets have lain buried for up to 45 years and, even yet, cannot bear scrutiny? We are entitled to wonder where national security ends and criminality begins?
Where a democratic state is concerned, its involvement in criminality is not something to be hidden. It is something to be investigated and exposed; that is the mark of a true democracy. And past misdeeds are not something to be traded off in negotiations; that would continue and compound the initial wrong done to victims.
Some will feel that the State should never divulge the secrets it is withholding. Others believe it should only do so in the context of a wider process involving paramilitary organisations. Are they happy to draw equivalence between the State and ‘terrorists’?
The State cites ‘national security’ as its excuse for non-disclosure and non-investigation. National security? National self-interest, more like.
Sadly, the past will linger like a bad stench along the corridors of Stormont. It will permeate the corridors of Westminster, too, although those who frequent them don’t seem to notice any more.
In the meantime, we remain stuck between a rock and a hard place. Relatives of the dead will visit lonely graveyards; victims will struggle to cope with their disabilities; and people in this part of the world will continue to lecture those elsewhere about the importance of democracy.