Northern Ireland "has nothing to fear from its past"

What is the cost of failing to deal with the past? /

By Steven McCaffery & Niall McCracken

NORTHERN Ireland should not fear a truth process into its violent past, two leading figures in the search for peace have said.

Denis Bradley and Robin Eames, who in 2009 co-authored a landmark report on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, said they were privy to some of the secrets likely to come out and believed there was nothing that unionists and nationalists were not already prepared for.

Their report proposed victims could either secure information on the death of loved ones or pursue prosecutions, but the wide-ranging blueprint on dealing with the past and encouraging reconciliation was not implemented by government.

While some continue to claim a Northern Ireland-style `truth process’ could split society, Mr Bradley said: "There is nothing new, even though I have seen it all, there is nothing new to come out that hasn’t been already within the imagination of the people.

“It is a matter of formalising that. It is a matter of finding a way that reveals that, that puts that into the public domain in a fashion that is formal, that is properly ritualised.”

His comments were endorsed by former Church of Ireland Primate Lord Eames, who said: "When I think of the stuff that we saw, the stuff that was disclosed to us, people in society don’t realise the dynamite that there is there.

“But people have the imagination, whether it is about collusion, whether it’s about the Disappeared. There are details that people don’t realise, but there is nothing really I believe which will be a total landslide shock to people.

“I don’t personally think we need to fear the past, but we fear the uncertainty about [it].

“People are psychologically afraid of the unknown … and to a large extent I would put that also at the door of the politicians. There are things they don’t want to go into because they are afraid of what they don’t know or what they think may come out.”

But Lord Eames argued that Northern Ireland society needs to deal with its history: "Time has moved on and there is now a much greater recognition right across the community that these issues aren’t going to go away, and that the longer they are not tackled, it is going to go on, with a drip drip, drip philosophy, whereby coroners courts, police inquiries, civil actions – they are going to go on and on, and on, as long as people have breath.

“Something is needed that will bind together the inquiry, the disclosure with the whole element of reconciliation.”

The Eames-Bradley report was published in January 2009

The Eames-Bradley report was published in January 2009

Meanwhile, Mr Bradley confirmed he has held discussions with US diplomat Richard Haass who is leading political negotiations in Belfast.

The Haass talks are due to intensify ahead of their Christmas deadline for a deal on the contentious issues of flags, parades, emblems and handling the legacy of the Troubles.

Mr Bradley said he told the talks chairman that politicians face two options to deal with the past and avoid “souring the water” for future generations.

The first is the slow introduction of a series of relatively modest proposals to reduce tension – such as collating the stories of victims of violence and brokering a deal on the stalled peace centre at the former Maze prison.

But Mr Bradley believes the second option: more radical proposals to expose the truth of what went on during the conflict and seek to build reconciliation may be necessary to protect the fragile political institutions.

“I think that it comes down to a big judgement, which is a heavily political judgement," he said.

“I have a feeling that some people will look at it and say `let’s avoid the difficult areas’.

“Now, the political judgement is, will that stop the crushing, or the making impotent [of] the political processes of Stormont and allow people to get on with things?

“Or will the lack of doing the big things, find a new way of [damaging politics].”

Mr Bradley said he believed that although the Irish government had become more focused on the key issues, the British government “are very reluctant to engage” in efforts to secure the peace process by facing up to the past.

Fallout from the decades of violence has shaken the political institutions in Northern Ireland over the last year.

The deep emotional scars that remain within society have been highlighted by recent events marking the anniversaries of a string of atrocities, while over the last 12 months political leaders at Stormont have been split over a series of disputes linked to the Troubles.

Mr Bradley said: “I think that if we don’t get past it, there is a danger, I don’t know how big that danger is, but there is a danger that the drip, drip, drip will keep souring the water and never allow it to clean itself.”

During the Troubles Mr Bradley acted as a secret back-channel between the IRA and the British authorities.

After the peace process developed he also helped lead the Policing Board that was set-up to oversee the new police service that grew out of the old Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

In 2009 he worked with Lord Eames in compiling their landmark report on dealing with the past.

They led the most extensive consultation process ever held into Northern Ireland’s past, before recommending their wide-ranging system of proposals.

These included new structures to allow each bereaved family to either seek more information on the deaths of their loved ones, or to continue to seek prosecutions, and to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The Eames-Bradley report, as it became known, also envisaged major efforts to support the bereaved and injured, and to reach out to all victims and survivors.

The report sought to remove the burden of investigating the past from policing and justice structures by creating a new organisation to oversee the task.

The measures were compiled by a consultative group led by Eames/Bradley and which was commissioned by government to examine needs within Northern Ireland’s communities.

The group also met those involved in the conflict and held discussions with the British and Irish administrations.

The blueprint set a timeframe and a budget on its proposals, with the aim of releasing Northern Ireland’s people from their past.

The document recognised there was no `silver bullet’ that could resolve the deep-seated problems, but the group designed what it believed was the best set of mechanisms for offering communities a chance at a fresh start.

How might the Haass talks deal with the past? /

There was major controversy over a recommendation that bereaved families each receive a £12,000 payment to recognise their loss – a gesture that had already been introduced in the Irish republic – and which the report said should be extended to all those who were bereaved, which would include the relatives of dead paramilitaries.

This led to a political row after the proposal was attacked by unionists in particular. In the months that followed, the British government effectively dropped the entire Eames-Bradley report.

Now Mr Bradley said he believed the British government remained reluctant to tackle the legacy issues, despite the evidence that the past continues to impact on the present and the future of the political process.

There have been recent revelations around the activities of the IRA during the Troubles, plus a fresh focus on killings by loyalists and by security forces colluding with paramilitaries.

Mr Bradley said: "The British are very reluctant to engage at this moment in time within the Haass process.

“I know Haass has gone and seen them but I am told within circles that the Irish government are now more engaged than they were, and that the British government are very, very reluctant.”

© The Detail 2013