Belfast talks need a deal on 'the past', but do London and Dublin want it?

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers with Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan meet for Stormont talks

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers with Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan meet for Stormont talks

By Steven McCaffery

IF HISTORIANS a hundred years from now examine this phase of the peace process, it is unlikely they will remember it for ‘the big Welfare row of 2014’.

It’s more likely that they will look back at the start of the 21st century as the time when the opportunities presented by a hard won peace were either secured or squandered.

A string of senior figures involved in bringing the Troubles to an end have advised that building a new future requires dealing with the legacy of decades, if not centuries, of conflict.

Now that new political talks have started in Belfast, the divisions between the Stormont political parties on `dealing with the past’ are clear.

Unionists oppose the current proposals, while republicans, nationalists and the middle-ground Alliance party broadly support the kind of blueprint envisaged by the 2013 Haass talks and the 2009 Eames/Bradley report.

But there is a widely held belief that any decision on re-examining the Troubles, to deal with the litany of crimes, and to ease the burden on tens of thousands of bereaved and injured, falls primarily to the British and Irish governments.

Nationalists point to evidence that the British government seeks to minimise any scrutiny of its role in the conflict. The rejection of inquires into the Ballymurphy Massacre and the delays hitting existing piecemeal investigations into the past are two recent examples.

But there is less focus on why the Irish government might be privately reluctant to see a re-examination of the Troubles.

The Detail reported here earlier this year how successive Irish governments faced questions over their actions across decades of conflict.

New evidence emerged around the handling of the infamous Dublin Arms Trial at the outbreak of the Troubles. It was revealed that key documents have disappeared. And there were allegations of intimidation from those who challenged the State’s account of events.

We published new figures showing that from 1973-97 the UK sought the extradition of 110 republican suspects from the Irish Republic, but 42 were arrested and only eight were extradited.

Victims of loyalist bombings in the Republic said they suffered attacks that came from the north. But they asked why successive Irish governments remained virtually silent on the killings for decades.

The current Irish government declined to be interviewed on the findings at the time.

In addition, critics of how the peace process has been stewarded have also accused the Conservative Party of being too close to the DUP, and alleged that Fine Gael and Labour leaders in the Republic are too focused on the growth of Sinn Féin in the south.

Both administrations have rejected such criticisms. They highlight that the majority of the bloodshed of the past can be blamed on paramilitary groups, who must be held to account.

The governments also insist that devolution puts an onus on the Stormont parties to play their part in delivering new political agreements. That argument has been reinforced by interventions from some significant figures from the US.

Meanwhile, back in Belfast, The Detail also reported how thousands of victims of the Troubles are currently being left without essential care, and how the bereaved are left without answers on the murder of loved ones.

The two sovereign governments responsible for Northern Ireland regularly voice concern that the legacy of the Troubles, and the associated rows over parades and cultural identity, are a barricade to delivering vital progress.

But at the outset of these talks, victims might ask London and Dublin: `What are you going to do about it?’