A month after he came to power, David Cameron stood up in the Commons to respond to the publication of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. What had happened, he said, was “both unjustified and unjustifiable”. His comments were welcome news, and it seemed a prelude to action.
Yet ever since that day, both the Prime Minister and successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have consistently blocked attempts to investigate human rights violations and abuses. The Current Northern Ireland Secretary of State has been no exception. By so doing they condemn Northern Ireland to live with a present and future still haunted by its violent past.
Almost 25 years ago, Patrick Finucane, a lawyer, was shot dead in the hallway of his north Belfast home. Who pulled the trigger was discovered long ago; we know the names of the loyalist paramilitaries who carried out the killing. But who pulled the strings? Despite years of denials, it has now been established that the security forces set up the murder and it was carried out by agents working for the State. Sinister indeed. Worthy of public scrutiny? Apparently not. Despite an international commitment from a previous UK government that it would establish an independent public inquiry into the killing, this government, specifically David Cameron, blocked the investigation.
In August 1998, just months after the people of Northern Ireland had voted for the Good Friday peace agreement, Omagh was ripped apart by a huge car bomb. 29 people were killed in what was the single largest atrocity of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’.
Again, who planted the bomb is known; ‘dissident’ republican group, the Real IRA. But could the bomb have been prevented and why haven’t the killers been brought to justice? That’s what the Omagh families want to know. Given that the security services had advance knowledge of the bombers’ plans and movements, there is surely a case to answer? Apparently not.
Despite huge questions of public concern about the circumstances of the bombing, three weeks ago Theresa Villiers told the Omagh families that she did not believe there to be “sufficient grounds” to justify a further inquiry, and that, the “government does not believe that selecting a further series of cases for public inquiries is the best way to deal with the past in Northern Ireland.”
So what’s the counter proposal? It is not clear that Ms Villiers is making any suggestion as to what should be done. It’s clear what she doesn’t want done, and that is to lay bare the facts in both instances, establish a clear and conclusive account of the events and name and blame those responsible; both architect and executioner.
Amnesty International’s recent report on attempts to deal with the past in Northern Ireland slammed the government for the continuing failure to grasp the nettle of the past. Bereaved families told Amnesty that the past cannot be simply swept aside. Families like the Finucanes, the Omagh bereaved and thousands of others, are desperate to move on with their lives. So, too, is Northern Ireland society as a whole. But they remain paralysed by a lack of political will.
From Amnesty’s work around the world, we know that it is those societies which most effectively deal with past conflict, who are most successful in learning the lessons of history and avoiding a retreat into further bouts of bloodshed. Yet what we are hearing again and again from Westminster is disinterest, disengagement and a desperation to disavow responsibility.
One final thought, Theresa Villiers’ refusal to put in place the sort of comprehensive process to deal with the past, citing in part the potential cost of such an initiative, ignores the very real cost – about £30 million this year alone – of having to police ongoing division and disorder in Northern Ireland, a very real legacy of an unresolved conflict.
If this is the annual conference of a party which prides itself on balancing the books, then perhaps Ms Villiers should keep an eye on the ongoing costs that are being haemorrhaged.