By Steven McCaffery
SINN Féin has said a process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland could be moved forward by separating it from the search for the truth about what happened during the Troubles.
The party’s Mitchel Mclaughlin said republicans would prefer a South African style `truth and reconciliation’ commission, but now accepted that splitting the two elements into a twin-track process could help deliver swifter progress on reconciliation, given the deadlock on the past.
A prominent victims’ group however said that putting reconciliation before establishing the facts of what happened during the conflict allowed the guilty to escape scrutiny, and was “a byword for impunity”.
Mr McLaughlin said his comments linked back to calls by Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney for greater efforts to heal divisions between nationalists and unionists.
Republicans have been criticised in the past for their handling of the IRA’s history, but Mr McLaughlin claimed it was the British government which was blocking progress by refusing to allow an examination of the state’s role in violence.
Sinn Féin’s official position has long been supportive of a `truth and reconciliation’ process, but Mr McLaughlin said today: “As long as they remain a binary process, then one can’t go forward without the other.
“There are too many things that we could do that aren’t being addressed.”
He said he was not giving up on the search for truth about the past, but envisaged a twin-track process: “Two parallel processes, but one clearly able to move forward at a faster rate than the other.”
The victim’s group Relatives for Justice expressed concerns and a spokesman for the organisation said: “Reconciliation in the absence of a truth process is often referred to internationally as a byword for impunity.”
The group said of the prospect of putting reconciliation ahead of truth: “It is like putting the roof on a house, before building the walls.”
Earlier Mr McLaughlin said: “Reconciliation and truth recovery hasn’t made progress at all. We’re suggesting a way that, instead of taking truth and reconciliation as a single concept, we are saying take them as two separate concepts that can move forward at their own pace in parallel.
“So, we’re in no way standing back from it.”
He said of his proposals: “We are engaging with the parties and seeking to build sufficient understanding.”
Mr McLaughlin initially outlined his party’s approach on truth and reconciliation during a divisive debate today in the Assembly on proposals for a bill to effectively block former paramilitaries from becoming Special Advisers to Assembly ministers.
The Special Advisers bill, drafted by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, emerged after the outcry in 2011 when Sinn Féin Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín chose an adviser jailed over the murder of 22-year-old teacher Mary Travers, seen as one of the most shocking killings of the Troubles.
The proposals would prevent anyone sentenced to five years or more in jail for serious offences from becoming a special adviser – known in government circles as `Spads’.
Mr McLaughlin claimed the bill overturned the pledges made to ex-prisoners in the Good Friday Agreement, but he also said the tone of the debate underlined how the past has “bedevilled this Assembly”.
He said republicans were ready to take part in a truth process, but claimed this was blocked by the British government’s position on state violence, including the refusal to allow an inquiry into state collusion in the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.
He told the Assembly: “My view is that people, whoever they are and from whatever section of the community they come, are entitled to the full information that can be made available in respect of the circumstances.
“I know that there is a flat contradiction between the approach reflected in the Good Friday Agreement and that of the British Government, which refuse to release their side of the story and, therefore, render, at this stage so far, a sense of paralysis over the whole process.
“I think that we might be forced to examine the coupling of truth recovery with reconciliation processes, which, I think, would be accepted as borrowed from the South African peace process.
“It may or may not have been an effective mechanism there, but it certainly provided some inspiration, hope and expectation for us. It was on that basis that we borrowed the phraseology.
“Perhaps we have to separate the two, because until such times as the British Government can be effectively engaged and will be part of bringing forward an independent truth recovery process, that aspect of truth and reconciliation just will not happen.
“Perhaps we can separate them, because this Assembly gets itself into binds at times and there are stand-offs, etc, but there are also times when we come together for a common purpose.
“I think that we could advance the whole issue of reconciliation at a quicker pace.”
Later, outside the chamber, Mr McLaughlin said the notion of separating the issues of `truth and reconciliation’, was being pursued by his party.
Mr McLaughlin added: “It is quite evident there will be no republicans going forward into a process where from the very beginning it is accepted that the British government isn’t going to present their piece of the mosaic.
“The truth is either all of the truth – it can’t be some of it.
“That particular difficulty means that the truth recovery process has made little or no progress over the last 15 or 20 years.
“But why should the reconciliation process, just by virtue of the fact that we borrowed a phrase or an approach from South Africa [not] be allowed to continue?
“Our view is that we could maybe do more. We could take forward reconciliation processes which might over a period of time make it possible for people to deal with the totality of truth recovery.”