By Steven McCaffery
STORMONT’S latest debate on the past provided ample evidence as to why a truth and reconciliation process isn’t going to happen any time soon.
The divisive nature of the discussion could arguably have illustrated precisely why one is necessary.
But the fault lines that continue to run through politics also support the rival claim that the only option is to draw a line under the events of the Troubles and move on.
There is complete division on what caused the decades of conflict, over exactly what happened in many of the thousands of deaths, and on how we might lay the past to rest.
Now Sinn Féin appears to be trying to shift the debate on to new ground – but what does it mean?
Mitchel McLaughlin says his party’s proposal, reported here by The Detail, is to separate ‘truth and reconciliation’ to form a new twin track process.
If the coupling together of `truth and reconciliation’ has prevented either issue getting out of the station because of the deadlock on the past – why not let reconciliation move forward separately?
“Two parallel processes, but one clearly able to move forward at a faster rate than the other.”
The plan echoes the approach of ongoing talks between First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on developing strategies to fight sectarianism and build a shared future for nationalists and unionists.
They could not agree on the most controversial issues of parades, flags and, of course, dealing with the past.
But the two leaders said that they would instead move forward where agreement was possible which, as was also reported here, included projects to foster links between young Protestants and Catholics.
The more divisive issues were put into an All-party Working Group for further consideration.
It is itself a sort of twin-track approach.
Mr McLaughlin said the latest divisive Stormont debate on the past, centring on TUV leader Jim Allister’s so-called SPAD bill, underlined the need for some action on reconciling divisions in the wider community.
Politicians in the chamber clashed over the draft legislation on preventing ex-prisoners, who refuse to repudiate their past, from becoming Special Advisers to government ministers.
There were exchanges over the dictionary definition of “contrition”, over views on IRA violence, on state violence, and disagreements on whether the Good Friday Agreement is the basis of the current political process or not.
And despite weeks of angry and painful debates, some including testimony from victims, it now seems the measure may collapse at the final stage of the legislative process amid divisions between nationalists and unionists.
Republicans have come in for heavy criticism over the affair, but during the most recent exchanges Mr McLaughlin said the Assembly was “bedevilled” by arguments over the past.
“My regret is that we seem to have had low-level conflict that led to a war.
“We found a way of ending the war, but we have returned to conflict. We have not moved on.”
Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott responded to the mention of a Truth and Reconciliation process by underlining unionist suspicion of republicans and said: “We, on this side of the House, are absolutely clear that we will not get the truth about what happened in the past.”
The problem for unionism is that avoiding a formal process on truth recovery will not stop campaigning groups and bereaved families seeking to uncover the facts behind the deaths of the Troubles – and history shows that can more often lead to revelations over security force activity than paramilitary.
Beyond that, there are also separate tensions over the fact that ex-paramilitaries are often asked to make efforts to support and protect the peace process, but they face the continuing risk of investigation and arrest for their past.
It is argued that this patchwork approach to the fallout from the years of violence ignores the wider social and political factors that led to the Troubles in the first place and that it fails to clear the way for the future.
From every perspective – unionist, nationalist, prisoner, victim – the current situation appears disjointed, unsatisfying and unagreed.
And so Sinn Féin now says that perhaps politicians should adopt a twin-track approach. They have done it in the past with other issues such as the bid to progress the political process alongside the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.
But adopting the same approach to a truth and reconciliation process is a sea change for republicans.
Victims’ groups have already noted Sinn Féin’s shift in language following speeches by the party’s chairman Declan Kearney which stepped-up the focus on the need for “reconciliation”.
The group Relatives for Justice says putting reconciliation before truth makes no sense: “It is like putting the roof on a house, before building the walls.”
So how will unionists react to Sinn Féin’s latest idea?
Time will tell, but the unfolding talks at Stormont indicate the two main parties are in “problem-solving mode”.
The announcement on a shared future has sparked criticism from opponents for being a piecemeal approach.
If the British and Irish governments endorse what the DUP and Sinn Féin say is, in fact, a pragmatic approach to a shared future, could London and Dublin also some day endorse a similar approach to dealing with the fallout from the conflict?
Sinn Féin says progress on reconciliation could lead to a greater willingness to enter a mature debate on what happened in the past and why.
Sceptics might alternatively say it could all be a convenient means of decoupling political parties and governments from dealing with the corrosive legacy of the Troubles.
Sinn Féin insists it is not drawing a line under the past – but it does seem to be putting brackets around it.
Are we heading towards a Northern Ireland (Truth) & Reconciliation Process?