From Mike Nesbitt to Madiba –the question of rewriting history

This article will contrast two unrelated matters that come together only insofar as they engage the above concept of history being rewritten.

The first comes in the context of the potentially imminent Haass proposals, provided to parties in draft form yesterday (and now in part at least finding their way to the print edition of the Belfast Telegraph) There are growing indications they just might include some recommendation for limited immunity in exchange for information(See previous posts on this blog in response to Attorney General’s ‘amnesty’ suggestion by Bill RolstonLuke Moffet, Louise Mallinder and Kieran McAvoy, Christopher Stanley ). The DUP has now indicated, in principal, an acceptance of such a proposal. The Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt, was more sceptical in his response.  Mr Nesbitt has previously regularly raised concerns that existing investigative mechanisms such as Inquests, insofar as they focus on actions of the security forces, could ‘rewrite history’ and depict the security forces as the ‘villains’ of ‘the Troubles’. The ‘rewrite history’ phrase, used so often by Mr Nesbitt that it has almost become a catchphrase, is articulated in the UUP’s position paper on dealing with the past.  At one level implicit in this concern would appear to be an acknowledgement that the state did regularly operate outside of the law during the conflict, otherwise there would be no cause for concern that so much wrong doing (rather than lawful -i.e. human rights compliant- use of force) would be uncovered it would actually ‘rewrite history’. The UUP paper does not articulate the concern in this manner rather suggesting that “exposing short-comings, bad decisions and perceived illegality by the state and its agents, without due emphasis on context” would serve to rewrite history. It is not clear however how competent tribunals or investigations would reach such a conclusion in the absence of evidence of the state operating outside the rule of law. It also seems unlikely that in our divided society history will ever be ‘rewritten’ rather it will continue to be fiercely contested, yet from a human rights perspective it is crucial to hold the state to account for its past actions, and hence that they are effectively investigated and exposed. This is not least from the perspective of non-recurrence, if elements of the state and its actors feel that practices outside the law were somehow justified (e.g. the comments of former MRF  soldiers on Panorama of late – see following post on subject) they are only likely to reoccur and fuel and exacerbate conflict in this jurisdiction. On this matter we should be more concerned about history being repeated than it being rewritten by any emerging facts.

Moving on to the second topic, the events in South Africa last week were undoubtedly historic, with numerous figures from around the world who had long supported the struggle against white minority rule assembling to pay tribute to the achievements of the leader who brought it to an end. More curiously alongside them, were those whose states demonstrated varying degrees of apologism or tacit support for the apartheid regime, or denounced Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’. Notably the US included both the ANC and Mandela on their official ‘terrorist watch lists’ until 2008 (see investigation by NBC News).  In an excellent piece in the Guardian Seamus Milne reflects on “a week of unrelenting beatification of Nelson Mandela by exactly the kind of people who stood behind his jailers under apartheid”, noting whilst some may have been won over by the scale of his achievement, “For many others, in the western world in particular, it reeks of the rankest hypocrisy.” Alluding to Mandela’s global moral authority and the ‘manifest depravity’ of the system of apartheid the ANC ended making their position impossible to defend he notes “So history has had to be comprehensively rewritten” with “Mandela and the ANC appropriated and sanitised” along with “inconvenient facts minimized or ignored.” Whilst this history may have been airbrushed from the western narrative it appears not to have been lost on South Africa, as Milne notes it was indeed Cuba’s Raúl Castro, and not Britain’s David Cameron, who was invited to speak at last Tuesdays celebration of Mandela’s life in Soweto. The actions of both in the late 1980s provide an interesting contrast. At this time Cuba, at the invitation of the Angolan government, had put its troops into Angola in the context of the invading forces of the South African regime, its mercenary allies and related CIA-funded groups. The defeat of South African forces by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale in 1998 is often characterised as one of the decisive blows to the apartheid regime who had also occupied Namibia (which it termed as ‘South West Africa’–see 1971 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on same) . Nelson Mandela  himself in a subsequent speech described how this “decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor…. The defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale made it possible for me to be here with you today”. By contrast as documented in The Independent at around the same time David Cameron, then a ‘rising star’ of the Conservative Research Department traveled to South Africa on the ticket of a firm lobbying against the imposition of sanctions on the regime. The then Tory government were leading opponents of the anti-apartheid sanctions that were to eventually assist in removing the regime. A legacy of this history lives with us today in Article 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. This provision seeks to prevent our local councils from including ‘non-commercial matters’ in its procurement contracts with firms it tenders out to. The Order mirrors provisions in Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988 in Great Britain, introduced at the height of the anti-apartheid boycott, and the ‘non commercial considerations’ include among other matters “the country or territory of origin of supplies to, or the location in any country or territory of the business activities or interests of, contractors” (subsection 4(e) of NI Order). As well as other contemporary boycotts the provision, which remains on our statute books, also can be employed to stop councils introducing a range of other ethical considerations to their tender requirements, ranging from the environmental to workers rights considerations. Now there is apparent consensus apartheid was abhorrent, it would be an opportune moment for our Assembly to use the next local government bill to ‘rewrite’ this particular bit of history, by removing it from the law and confining it to the past.