Putting Northern Ireland’s Past Back on the Agenda

image For many, the welcome reception this week of the Saville Report and the British Prime Minister’s apology for the failings of the British Army and the British state in regard to Bloody Sunday have signalled that Northern Ireland may be beginning to move on from its troubled past.

This morning on Sunday Sequence, the past was very much back on the agenda as William Crawley facilitated a debate, ‘After Bloody Sunday: a Truth Commission for Northern Ireland?’ I have been concerned that the recommendations of the Eames-Bradley Report are going to be quietly and permanently shelved, so I welcome the entry of this issue back to the public domain.

The debate can be heard in full here, and features Denis Bradley (formerly of the Consultative Group on the Past that produced the Eames-Bradley Report), Victims Commissioner Bertha McDougall, former Presbyterian minister John Dunlop, and Jude Whyte, whose mother was killed in a UVF bomb.

Some important points were made in the debate, which are important to keep in mind as public discussion continues:

  • Dealing with the Past doesn’t mean we have to replicate the Bloody Sunday Inquiry for every incident – in fact it this would not be a good idea
  • Victims and survivors want different things from a truth recovery/dealing with the past process, and it will be difficult to accommodate everybody. But the victims shouldn’t have to bear the burden of shaping and facilitating the process either
  • There are lots of alternatives to a ‘South African style’ truth and reconciliation commission – in fact, the Eames-Bradley report recommends a multi-track process including some private meetings and a reconciliation forum, amongst other things
  • Most victims and survivors want some public acknowledgement that what happened to them or their loved ones was wrong. Saying ‘sorry’ can go a long way, as we learned this week from David Cameron.

During the debate, I was frustrated with McDougall’s continued insistence that we need to ask victims and survivors how they want to deal with the past. With all due respect, the Eames-Bradley process was a lengthy and thorough attempt to do this, featuring public and private meetings with victims and survivors all over Northern Ireland.

The recommendations of the Eames-Bradley Report reflect consultation with victims and survivors and it is disingenuous to deny or ignore this.

The reaction to Saville demonstrated that public processes for dealing with the past can have a great deal of value. I hope the Saville Report prompts our policy makers to take a longer and harder look at the recommendations of Eames-Bradley.

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