When you live and work in Northern Ireland, as I did for many years, you can become used to shocking stories about the past. You meet people who saw their loved ones murdered, others for whom checking for car bombs was a quotidian chore, and some who live to this day with the mental and physical scars of 30 years of violence.
With so many appalling tales from the Troubles you do – or, at least, I did – become inured to the accounts of terrible suffering. Everything takes on a grey tinge. Northern Ireland’s past loses its capacity to shock.
Or so I thought before settling down to watch last week’s Panorama from the comfort of my living room in Glasgow. In Britain’s Secret Terror Force, journalist John Ware lifted the lid on a British Army unit tasked with “hunting down” IRA members in Belfast in the early 1970s.
At a time when the sectarian conflict was escalating – and a time when there was a tangible chance for peace – clandestine, plain-clothes members of the British army drove around Belfast in unmarked cars. The Military Reaction Force (MRF) shot at targets in republican areas, often using the same weapons as the IRA. “We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group,” one former MRF soldier told Ware. The force killed at least two men in drive-by shootings who had no paramilitary connections and injured more than ten other civilians.
Shocking barely begins to cover it.
But the MRF revelations are not the only disturbing accounts from Northern Ireland’s past to emerge in recent weeks. Earlier this month another BBC documentary, the Disappeared, unravelled the story of the people murdered and buried in secret graves, often bogs, by the IRA.
Since 1999, when the IRA admitted responsibility for the killings, the families have quietly, stoically searched for the remains of their loved ones. Some have been successful; others have not. All have had their lives blighted by the senseless suffering inflicted upon them.
The past is nothing if not ecumenical. Last month, saw the publication of Lethal Allies by former journalist Anne Cadwallader. In painstaking, meticulous detail Cadwallader examines the killings of more than 120 people by loyalist paramilitaries between 1972 and 1976.
Her conclusion: the killers, members of a notorious Ulster Volunteer Force gang, were working in collusion with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment.
Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, the past is very much the present in Northern Ireland. Indeed, as exposés on state collusion with loyalist death squads, IRA victims thrown in shallow graves and British Army units acting like paramilitaries were grabbing headlines and audience share, former US envoy Richard Haass was meeting representatives from the five executive parties at Stormont in an attempt to find a consensus on parades, flags and dealing with the past. Haass has set a deadline of the end of the year for a cross-party deal.
The reason that past refuses to stay past is simple: while the agreements reached between nationalism and unionism has created a reasonably inclusive new institutional regime, they never attempted to address issues such as cultural symbols, tolerance and the building of a pluralist Northern Irish society. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party might share power in Stormont but they do not share a vision for the future, or the past.
“Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics,” John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University Belfast, told me this week.
“The politicians have created a political impasse in Northern Ireland while they wait for Haass to deal with the issues of the past,” says Brewer. “It is in this political interregnum that we have seen the growth of extremists.
“At the moment, victims are politicised by those who want to use the past to dismantle the Good Friday Agreement.”
Brewer’s words are salutary. A recent BBC Northern Ireland investigation revealed that a leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party, Winston “Winkie” Irvine, is also a commander in a fast re-militarising UVF.
The UVF has been given a new lease of life by the protests against the decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union Flag from City Hall on designated days. For some, these demonstrations are not over – on Saturday a massive loyalist rally is planned in the Northern Irish capital to mark their anniversary.
On Twaddell Avenue, in north Belfast, loyalist protesters have been camped out since July, when an Orange Order parade was restricted. For loyalist street protesters such as Jamie Bryson, the ultimate aim is to take down the Good Friday Agreement, which they see as inherently anti-Protestant.
Dissident republicans have not gone away either. Anti-ceasefire groups are gaining traction in staunch republican areas such as West Belfast and Lurgan. Just this week, a dissident bomb partially exploded inside a hijacked car in Belfast city centre.
Mainstream politicians in the north broadly agree that the past needs to be resolved, but that is easier said than done. The criminal justice system has proved an ineffective vehicle. The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has only delivered two court cases, and with £190 million earmarked for pursuing historic cases over the next five years a feeling is growing that this money could be better spent on victims of the Troubles.
Last week, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending any prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Larkin’s comments were condemned by politicians across the island, but privately many say that the time has come to revisit a 2009 report on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles by Denis Bradley and Robin Eames. The report, which proposed that victims could either secure information on the death of loved ones or pursue prosecutions, included a raft of recommendations, including payments to victims, but was not implemented by Stormont. Haass, it is hoped, could finally take Eames/Bradley off the shelf. “Haass is Eames/Bradley for slow learners,” says Brewer, echoing Seamus Mallon’s famous quip about the Good Friday and Sunningdale agreements.
Neglected by governments in London and Dublin that for long mistook the absence of violence for the presence of reconciliation, Northern Ireland must now face its past in inclement weather. The “peace dividend” has been spent; its economy is in poor health. But there is now a chance now to finally take the politics out of the past – if its leaders are willing to seize it.