A Contested Past: Dealing with the Legacy of The Troubles

Socialists have no confidence in the capacity of the sectarian forces and the state to subject their role in the troubles to real scrutiny. We do however have a confidence in working class people to expose the truth and expose these forces to real scrutiny. This could means some form of wide-ranging enquiry into the troubles, which would not be in the hands of the state or establishment parties but made up of respected trade unionists and those with a record of campaigning on these issues from the stand point of ordinary people, including human rights groups.

The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”

This was the second paragraph of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement which was signed twenty years ago. As the Socialist Party said at the time, the Good Friday Agreement- while achieving a level of peace, rather than overcoming sectarianism the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) would act to institutionalise sectarian. Twenty years on communities are more divided than ever, working class people have not received any real ‘peace dividend’ and we have a political system riddled with crisis as a result of this sectarian set up. There has been no achievement “of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust” and there has been no resolution of legacy issues from the troubles.

Karl Marx writing in 1852 said the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” In many ways the troubles weighs like nightmare for the last twenty years, the troubles claimed the lives of more than 3,600 people, injured a further 40,000 and saw an estimated 30,000 people go through the prison system. Yet according to the PSNI there are still around over 3,000 unsolved murders from the period spanning the troubles.

As well entrenching sectarian divisions the legacy of the trouble has important societal effects – for example in relation to Mental health. Research conducted by Ulster University on behalf of the Commission for Victims and Survivors found almost 30% of the Northern Irish population suffer mental health problems, and nearly half of those are directly related to the Troubles including a “high levels of, often untreated, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of decades of violence.”

Sectarian battle over the past

Importantly the past remains a battleground for sectarian politicians today. None of the contending forces in the Troubles – the sectarian parties, paramilitaries and the state – want a genuine accounting with the past which would expose their rotten role. Rather, they use and manipulate the past to support their positions today.

This year already we have seen the sectarian buffoonery of Barry McElduff who videoed himself messing about with Kingsmill bread. This was on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre when the Provisional IRA – using the cover name of the South Armagh Republican Action Force – stopped a minibus of workers on a country road near Kingsmill, County Armagh. They demanded to know which of the workers were Catholic. Fearing the gunmen were loyalists, the workers tried to stop the only Catholic from identifying himself. However, when he stepped forward, he was ordered to leave and the remaining Protestant workers were riddled with bullets, killing 10 and leaving the other for dead. This brutal, sectarian atrocity was a ‘response’ to the murder of six Catholics by the Glenanne gang, a ruthless group of RUC, UDR and UVF members operating in the area. Repulsed by this sectarianism 40,000 people signed a position against McElduff, who has been forced to resign his seat as a result of this action.

We also had Gregory Campbell defending the flying of the Parachute Regiment’s flag in County Derry – a sectarian provocation given this regiment was responsible for the murder of 14 innocent protesters on Bloody Sunday. Politicians have even sought to distort atrocities committed during the troubles in order to justify their narrative today. An outrageous example of this is John Taylor, Lord Kilclooney, who was a senior figure in the Unionist government at the time of the Gurk Bar bombing by the UVF which killed 15 people has tweeted that it was a “drinking hole for IRA sympathisers” who have run a “political campaign to place the blame on the UVF”.

These are the more extreme examples of a battle over the narrative of the troubles which is in part a product of the different national aspiration in our divided society. This is reflected in the naming of a playpark in Newry after IRA hunger-striker Raymond McCreesh. For many Catholics, including many who did not support the IRA campaign, McCreesh was a hero who sacrificed himself bravely for what he believed. Most Protestants, however, are offended by the name, particularly given the unproven allegations that McCreesh was involved in the Kingsmill massacre.

The sectarian parties that exist today have no credibility to offer real any truth or justice to all the victims of the troubles. How can Sinn Féin be trusted to provide any truth or justice to the families of the Kingsmill victims or other victims of the atrocities committed by the IRA? How can the DUP provide any truth or justice to the families of the Loughinisland victims, when members of the UVF shot dead six innocent men as they watch a world cup match? Its leaders were central figures in the founding of Ulster Resistance, an organisation that collaborated with the UVF and UDA to import guns from South Africa to Northern Ireland, one of which was used in this atrocity.

“Pernicious counter-narrative”

Nor can the British state claim any authority in attempting to deal with the issues of the past. Its actions resulted in several massacres, such as Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy. It was also complicit in countless cases of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and is believed to have engaged in cover-ups to protect informers.

The recent “No stone unturned” documentary shows the lengths to which the RUC went to cover up the involvement of their informers in the Loughinisland massacre. The film names the main suspects, one of whom was a UDR soldier and the other a police informer. One ex-investigator interviewed says there was “a forensic goldmine”, yet  as the director Alex Gibney put it – the cover-up “was staggering in terms of its breadth and audacity.” The field where the getaway car was found was never properly examined. A remarkable amount of evidence was destroyed, including the transcripts of the suspect interviews and the car which the gunmen used in the attack. The state is also believed to have been involved in protecting informers in atrocities committed by republican paramilitaries, including in Kingsmill.

Recent reports, books and documentaries have also exposed the massive scale of collusion, yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, former Secretary of State Theresa Villiers maintained the line that allegations of collusion are a “pernicious counter-narrative”.

Similarly, the British state has refused, on the spurious grounds of “national security”, to release documents that could provide answers to the victims of state violence and collusion. For many families and victims they are simply looking the truth into what happened to their loved one. As Alan Brecknell, whose father Trevor Brecknell was killed by the UVF put it “from my family’s point of view all we want to know is the truth. We would like a truth-seek in mechanism where people have to speak about what they were involved in, where there can finally be full acknowledgment of the things that were done here.” But nonetheless these families show no interest in giving up as James Miller, whose grandfather David Miller was killed in a suspected IRA bomb attack in Claudy put it, “It’s said they are waiting for us to die out. But the next generation will still keep asking questions about what happened. Look at me, it was my grandfather who was killed and I am still going to keep asking for the truth.”

Other wish to go further and call for some element of justice for the victims including the prosecution of soldiers. For socialists the key to any real justice for these families is for those with real power to brought to justice. Recently there has been the questioning of soldiers who were on the ground in Derry on Bloody Sunday. But what about the higher echelons of the army who sanctioned it? They are clearly responsible. Major General Robert Ford, who was the commander of the land forces in Northern Ireland, several weeks before this atrocity said he supported the “shooting of selected ringleaders of rioters.”

No justice in the courts

The example of the hooded men has important lesson in terms of how far the establishment are willing to go to protect their prestige and power. This is the case of 14 interned men who were subject to the “five techniques” including being hooded, made to stand in stress positions, forced to listen to loud static noise and being deprived of sleep, food and water. Some of the men were also thrown from helicopters and told they were hundreds of feet in the air despite being just feet from the ground. In 1978 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the techniques constituted inhuman and degrading treatment – but fell short of torture.

Despite campaigning for justice for decades the remaining hooded men this year were told that the ECHR reaffirms its decision that it did not amount to torture. A key reason for this was not simply a question of the prestige of the British government but that torture techniques that had been perfected in Northern Ireland where now been used across the world including in Palestine by the Israeli authorities and Guantanamo bay by the American army. With the hooded men ruling allowing these governments to apply “an aggressive interpretation as to what amounts to torture.”

Kicking the can down the road

Socialists support measures that can shine a light of truth for the families and victims of the troubles. We believe a real accounting of the past would be beneficial in providing people a real assessment of the role played by the contending forces during the troubles. However, we have no faith in the sectarian parties or state to make this happen.

A number of new agencies were agreed by political leaders under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. A Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) would examine unsolved murders while an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval(ICIR) would help families to learn more about the fate of their loved ones. The ongoing political crisis at Stormont has meant that these bodies have not come into existence. There is also serious doubt that there would any serious “buy in” from paramilitaries and ex-paramilitary members with the ICIR, in handing over information to victims and families.

There is also distrust at how independent from the state these bodies will actually be. The precursor to the HIU was the Historical Enquires Team (HET), a unit of the PSNI. Although operationally independent it was accountable to the PSNI Chief Constable. As such, it could not be said to be neutral or independent – it in reality was an arm of the state and the HET was widely viewed to be ‘soft’ in terms of taking up crimes committed by state forces or involving collusion or informers.

While the establishment kick the can down the road in terms of failing to deal with these issues it is the families and victims who suffer. Socialist support significant funding- more the £150 million on offerincluding to fund corner inquests for families. We also support the demands of victims groups to provide those physically maimed by the troubles a decent quality of life including the demands of groups like the Wave Trauma Centre, who have campaign for years for proper health for victims and a special pension.

A forgotten history

Crucially, it is necessary to look to the forces which in the course of the troubles can genuinely lay claim to uniting working class people and of standing against sectarian division- that is the Labour and trade union movement, particularly its shop stewards and rank and file. As Peter Hadden wrote in Common History,Common Struggle:

“While almost every petrol bomb thrown, every bullet fired around the Shankill, Falls and Ardoyne has been recorded, analysed and reanalysed, the stinting endeavours of working class people in East Belfast, North and West Belfast and many other areas to physically halt the bigots have gone unrecorded and largely ignored by history.”

He was referring to the shop stewards that took action in the shipyards to oppose intimidation of workers and formed ‘peace committees’ in parts of Belfast to defend people in local communities. In the course of the troubles, trade unionists continued to play an important role in checking the sectarian forces. In response to the Glenanne gang killings and Kingsmill, Newry Trades Council immediately called a strike which closed most of the factories and workplaces in the town and brought thousands onto the streets. In the Craigavon area, shop stewards from the Goodyear factory took the initiative to together with other shop stewards to call a strike. Seven thousand workers marched in Lurgan.

Later in 1989, Mid Ulster Trades Council organised strike action against the murder of three Protestants by the IRA, workers from the Unipork factory and others responded in their hundreds. In 1994, when Maurice O’Kane, a Catholic welder, shop stewards immediately called thousands of workers out and left the shipyard empty.

There are countless other examples like this which show the enormous power the trade unions can wield against sectarian forces. It is this force today alongside a new generation of young people who want to fight for equality that can provide the basis for a different future. Part of their task will be bring to light the reality of the troubles and how it still scares our society and seek to provide justice for all the real victims of the troubles.

As has been outlined socialists have no confidence in the capacity of the sectarian forces and the state to subject their role in the troubles to real scrutiny. We do however have a confidence in working class people to expose the truth and expose these forces to real scrutiny. This could means some form of wide-ranging enquiry into the troubles, which would not be in the hands of the state or establishment parties but made up of respected trade unionists and those with a record of campaigning on these issues from the stand point of ordinary people, including human rights groups.

Such a process would help and be part of creating a real peace process- one that actually seek to create “reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust” among working class people not continual division.

By Kevin Henry

This article was originally published in the Spring edition of Socialist Alternative, political magazine of the Socialist Party

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