The past continues to haunt the present in Northern Ireland. In the last week of February a major crisis rocked the Northern Ireland Executive and almost brought it crashing down.
The crisis erupted when charges against John Downey, a republican suspected of carrying out the Hyde Park bombing in London in 1982 which killed four soldiers, were dropped. It had emerged that Downey had received a letter assuring him that he was not wanted by the authorities and it quickly became clear that 200 or so other individuals had received similar letters over the last number of years.
Men and women such as Downey were said to be “on the run” during the Troubles when they left their homes in fear of arrest and moved between “safe houses”. Many operated in this way for decades, often ending up outside the North, residing in the South of Ireland or the United States.
The freedom for the “on the runs” (OTRs) to return home and live free from the fear of arrest was a key issue for Sinn Fein during negotiations with the Blair government a decade ago. Attempts to pass legislation at Westminster to solve the issue collapsed in 2006 and a side-deal was then done between Sinn Fein and the government. The letters were issued as a result of this deal.
As soon as Downey walked free a storm of protest erupted and First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign claiming that he knew nothing about what he termed the “get out of jail free” letters. If he had resigned the Executive would have collapsed and an Assembly election would have followed. Instead, within 36 hours Robinson dropped his threat to resign, claiming that a promised British government enquiry meant that the letters were now “useless pieces of paper”.
The immediate crisis has been defused but further shocks are inevitable, on the issue of the OTR’s or on other issues, many relating to controversial events from the past forty years. The DUP are clearly open to attack from Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice, and his like. Whilst the actual letters were issued in secret it was evident that the OTR’s have been allowed to return quietly home and are often living openly. All the evidence is that the DUP knew this and that Robinson’s bluster was an attempt to hide this reality. The DUP are very concerned to be seen as on the side of the victims of the Troubles and fear losing votes if there is any hint that they are not.
There is real anger in the Protestant community on the issue of the OTRs. Many are incensed by what appears to be double-standards on the part of the British government-in their eyes suspected republican paramilitaries are granted an amnesty whilst loyalists continue to be pursued and the PSNI is examining whether charges can be brought against the soldiers who opened fire on Bloody Sunday. That this does not entirely correspond to reality, crucially the reality that Sinn Fein has agreed to enter the Northern Ireland political structures, is less important than the perception.
For many in In the Catholic community its seems obvious that those who are no longer “active” in the IRA should no longer be pursued. At the same time they may be in favour of loyalist gunmen and bombers who carried out sectarian killings being taken to court. They are often especially in favour of soldiers and police officers facing the courts, mindful of how seldom this has occurred over the last four decades.
Protestants often hold the opposite view-paramilitaries should face justice and see the inside of a prison cell whereas members of the state forces should be left alone. There are also many, in both communities, who firmly believe that paramilitary gunmen, and those who carried out criminal acts in state uniforms, should pay the price. After all, most people did not pick up a gun or plant a bomb.
The OTR crisis has to be seen against the background of a fractious atmosphere around the Executive table for over a year. The main parties were never comfortable coalition partners but the almost continuous protests and violence on the streets since the flag protests, erupted in early December 2012 soured the atmosphere even further. There is now only a small weekly city centre protest in Belfast but bitterness around the flag issue in Protestant working class areas remains. Over 800, mainly young, Protestants have been arrested during the protests, and many remain in prison. In July an Orange Order march was prevented from proceeding past the Ardoyne shops in North Belfast and a standoff in the area has continued ever since.
Last summer the DUP unilaterally withdrew from plan for a peace centre at the site of the Maze Prison/Long Kesh which had previously been agreed with Sinn Fein. Tension was high at the time, in part because of a Sinn Fein backed march to commemorate dead IRA members which went through the centre of Castlederg, a town which suffered many deaths during the course of the Troubles.
In an to reach cross-party agreement the DUP and Sinn Fein convened talks between the all the main parties, chaired by US diplomat Richard Haas, on issues around flags, emblems, parades and the past. The talks concluded in the last days of 2103, and ended in spectacular failure. The OTR’s crisis has only served to accentuate existing divisions.
Day to day politics in Northern Ireland is often dominated by issues concerning “the past” and the rights of the “victims and survivors” of the Troubles. There are sharp disagreements between the parties on these issues, and all attempts to reach consensus and compromise have failed.
The victims of the Troubles are those who suffered directly, that is, the thousands who died, the tens of thousands who were injured, and their families. In a real sense all those who lived through the nightmare are victims, especially working class people who endured the worst of the violence. There are heartfelt calls from all quarters for “justice” for “the victims” and these should be listened to. The obvious problem however, is that there is bitter argument over even simple questions such as just what justice amounts to and exactly who deserves to be termed a victim. The victims are represented by many voices-each constituency has its own group. Thus discordant voices are raised, sometimes in the same room, when, for example, when the widows of RUC officers and those who lost relatives at the hands of the RUC. The plain truth is that many people will never have their pleas answered to their full satisfaction.
It is absolutely the case that pursuing and jailing those who were involved in violence decades ago is not in any way an answer to the problems facing working class people today. This applies to members of the IRA and other republican paramilitary groups, and to members of Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF and UDA. The paramilitaries were checked in the past by the actions of the workers movement, through mass demonstrations and strikes. Today the only way to cut across the very small numbers involved in the dissident republican armed groups which are continuing armed campaigns, and the fringe loyalist paramilitary groups which are intimidating their own communities is through similar working class action. The repressive measures of the state will not finish off these groups. And only the workers movement can genuinely claim to stand apart from the sectarian forces which dominate Northern Ireland politics at present and shine a light on the past.
To date one group has avoided scrutiny more successfully than others – the state forces. British soldiers killed fourteen innocent men and boys on Bloody Sunday, and eleven over the three days of the Ballymurphy massacre, and on many other occasions, resulting in death and injury. The prosecution and jailing of British soldiers or police officers for crimes committed years or decades ago is extremely unlikely. It is not in the interests of the state to wash its dirty linen in public or to admit any level of guilt unless absolutely unavoidable. If the state did go down that road it would treat ex-members of the state forces as sacrificial lambs. Just as once it was in the interests of the state to sanction murder it might in the future sanction the punishment of its own agents.
The interests of working class people, In the North, and in England, Scotland and Wales, lie in the fullest possible exposure of the role of the state. Creating scapegoats would in itself solve nothing and in fact would be very convenient for the state. Instead it is important that the criminals at the cabinet table of the British government have the spotlight trained on them. The point is to expose the crimes of the ruling class in order to make it more difficult for the state to act in the same way again.
The only way to achieve justice is to ensure that we do not return to our grim past. Those who are responsible for the Troubles should have no hiding place, they should be exposed. Working class people suffered most during the Troubles and the workers movement has a duty to expose the crimes of the political forces which whipped up sectarianism in the past, and often continue do so, even while they call for justice for the victims. The workers movement must also expose the crimes of the state-the establishment must not be allowed to avoid responsibility for the violence of state forces. Learning the necessary lessons of the past would be a fitting memorial for those who died.
A real examination of the events of the last forty years would lay bare, for the lie that it is, the poisonous idea that we are all somehow to blame for the Troubles. Working class activists, primarily organised through the unions, stood against sectarianism and sectarian killings. These activists were not responsible for the Troubles and to suggest otherwise is a travesty. Sectarian political parties, the paramilitaries, and the ultimately the ruling class, on the other hand, are responsible and have much to answer for. They dragged us into violence in the past and will do so again in the future unless challenged.
There is an urgent need to create an alternative, for young people in particular, other than the often heard cry that there is no alternative except to leave Northern Ireland. Well-organised trade unions with combative left and anti-sectarian leaderships, and a mass anti-sectarian party which unites Catholic and Protestant workers and young people, are the alternative we strive to create.