Accounting for our Troubled past

Recently, a number of reports into some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles have been published. The Historical Enquiry Team (HET) was behind the reports. The HET was set up in 2005 with a remit to re-examine 3,269 murders which were carried out between 1968 and 1998. Unofficially, the investigations of the HET are designed to draw a line under the past and allow us to “move on”. The reality is that each report only raises vexed issues, reopens wounds and satisfies no-one-especially not those who lost family members over the last 40 years.

To take just one example, a recent HET report examined the IRA attack on the La Mon House Hotel in Castlereagh in 1978. A huge incendiary bomb sent a fireball raging through a room in the hotel where a dinner dance was taking place, killing 12 people and leaving many others with horrific injuries. A waitress later told a coroner’s court inquest that “people were on fire, actually burning alive. I watched men pulling long curtains off the rails and wrapping people up in them to try to put out the flames. I could smell the    burning flesh.”

The relatives of those who died at La Mon have been bitterly disappointed with the findings of the HET. One said it was “a farce”. Suspicions have been voiced that the HET has covered up the role of republicans who are now prominent politicians but who played a different role in the past.

The HET is a unit of the PSNI – although operationally independent it is accountable to the PSNI Chief Constable. As such, it cannot be said to be neutral or independent – it is an arm of the state. The findings of such a body will always be viewed with suspicion. In particular, the HET cannot be relied upon to expose the crimes carried by the state and its armed bodies.

Al Hutchinson, the soon to retire Police Ombudsman, has called for an amnesty as a solution to the problem of unresolved killings in the North, arguing that this would encourage those involved in the conflict to come forward with information. Would this be a step forward for the working class? Would an amnesty put the Troubles decisively behind us?

In effect of course, there has already been a partial amnesty as part of the peace process. The key point is, have the lessons of the past been learned? Has society decisively moved on?

The point of remembering our past is so that we don’t repeat it. The sectarian individuals, political parties and armed groups that dragged Northern Ireland into conflict in the past have not gone away. An amnesty that allows these forces to wash their hands of their crimes is not acceptable. In most cases, that does not mean that individuals who carried out sectarian crimes in the past should go to prison now, though there are some who present a current danger to working class communities and who should be removed from the streets. We are in favour however, of the exposure of those responsible for the unresolved atrocities of the Troubles.

The state will not deliver on this demand and nor will representatives of the sectarian political parties. There are many local community and trade union activists who are respected and trusted, however, and from their ranks it would be possible to create an enquiry team which is entirely separate and   independent from the state.

The establishment of such an enquiry is possible under the present system, and would represent an important step forward, but a real and final accounting with the past will only be possible on the basis of socialism.

We have a peace process based on the institutionalisation of sectarianism. None of the real issues have been resolved. Mass unemployment, child poverty and a shortage of housing continue. The Executive are determined to push though a package of austerity measures which will only drive the working class into further poverty. We must build a political voice for the working class that can effectively challenge the capitalist class and their ideas. A voice that would attempt to resolve the injustices of the past and build a future based on workers unity and socialism.

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