Seizing the time now on the Past

Rights NI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Christopher Stanley. Christopher Stanley is Legal Officer with Rights Watch (UK) and can be reached at 

I was in Belfast between Thursday and Saturday last week.  It was a busy time in terms of the Past in Northern Ireland which included the discussion of the Policing Board about the future of the HET and the launch of an important Amnesty International Report “Northern Ireland: Time to Deal with the Past”.  In Northern Ireland in those few days, and this was reflected in the broadcast media and not just in the outposts of the blog sphere, the focus was and is the Past and the realization that probably more so now than when The Consultative Group on the Past published its Report in 2009, which was ambushed over a single issue which provided the political convenience to dump it into the circular waste paper basket, the arrival of Mr Haass is a symbolic point at which if this isn’t sorted now it will never be sorted and this Past will shape the Present and determine the Future of Northern Ireland.  That is old rhetoric again but toxic substances, like memories, outlive individual lives.

It seems like ‘we’ are entering a perfect storm about the Past in Northern Ireland. To state the obvious to followers of the Northern Ireland human rights blogs: the HET is discredited, OPONI is attempting to rebuild its credibility, the Coronial system is swamped with increasing references by the Attorney-General to judge upon the legacy cases, and there is the political revulsion at the idea of more Northern Ireland inquiries – including the recent Westminster decision about the Omagh Bomb 1998. Dealing with the Past is exhausting, turning your neck to look all the time makes your body ache.  It creates bitterness and resentment.  The right to forget, but not necessarily to forgive, must be acknowledged:  ressentiment is a very difficult idea when the position of those who deny the grace of pardon to the perpetrator but who wish is to forget must be acknowledge in this storm as their psychological shelter.  The victim can sometimes, and sometimes without choice, be silent or silenced.

In those recent two days in Northern Ireland the spaces of public engagement in the debate about the Past have been very crowded.  The political space (the Policing Board,  in what is now a battle with the PSNI over the HET) and the legal space (the Royal Courts of Justice, in its judgments on the legality of the actions of the UK government in addressing its responsibilities (moral and legal) for both its direct and indirect actions and inactions in causing death and injury during the conflict – what in Westminster is now a little recent local difficulty) and the civic space of the NGO world (for what we are worth) have all been crowded and vocal and subject to the glare of the space occupied by the Fourth Estate of the media (cameras at Clarendon Dock, microphones at The Bar Library – the constant parade of survivors and the explanations to Year 11).

And now there is the peculiar non-space of the Northern Ireland Office (I exempt it from Real Politics in Northern Ireland save in that essential State of Exception to say No: Omagh – ‘we know better, we know the history, we will keep it from you but let it poison you because we need your political leaders to accept our benign authority to keep the secrets of the past so as to let them, partially, govern your future, because that was the deal’). The crowded spaces of and for public discourse in Northern Ireland have been filled with the Past in a political dialogue around the future but the risk that is always there is the rapid erosion of this discourse into a babble.

I am not sure whether toxic substances cause boils.  I am not sure whether the nobility of Amnesty International in committing to Northern Ireland and presenting a Report, the International Committee of the Red Cross in coming to Northern Ireland and establishing an office, or the arrival of a well-meaning American in the footsteps of his American President who can quote Yeats can incise and expunge this boil.  I hope they can because it needs surgical precision now to address this Past before it poisons this Future, which was so clear in the testimony of those who spoke to Amnesty International, who spoke to Consultative Group on the Past, who were consulted upon by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who engaged with the HET, who complained to OPONI, who challenged through the courts.  Dear Mr Haass …..