Dani Garavelli: The price of peace

If McGuinness and Paisley can be nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers, then anything is possible

WE HAVE become so used to seeing hardline old enemies – Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley – cosying up together like congenial old uncles, it's easy to forget the tensions that drove their 30-year conflict are still simmering just below the surface in Northern Ireland.

But the angry clashes between bereaved relatives on either side of the sectarian divide at the Europa Hotel in Belfast last week served as a timely reminder that in a region scarred by its violent past, cross-community flare-ups are never more than an ill-judged policy proposal away.

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That the insult-hurling, finger-jabbing confrontation should have taken place at the launch of the long-awaited report of the Consultative Group on the Past was both ironic and fitting: ironic because the event – meant to symbolise Northern Ireland's journey towards reconciliation – was reduced to a pre-peace process-style slanging match; fitting, because it highlighted more poignantly than the report's authors – former primate of the Church of Ireland Lord Eames, and former vice chair of the police board and ex-Catholic priest Denis Bradley – ever could just how far the region has to go if it is to put its past behind it.

Not that – on this occasion – the anger was unjustified. Whatever their intention, the churchmen's plans to give a one-off sum of 12,000 to the next of kin of every person – British soldier, RUC officer, civilian and terrorist alike – killed in the Troubles as "recognition" of their suffering was destined to reopen old wounds rather than help them heal.

As Northern Ireland has moved towards stability, those who lost loved ones in terrorist attacks have been asked to give a lot of ground in the name of peace. They have had to resign themselves to paramilitaries walking free and get used to the sight of extremists at the heart of government. Some have met face-to-face with the men responsible for their relatives' deaths; a handful have even found it in their hearts to forgive and gained a degree of closure in the process.

But to ask them to welcome a pay-out which draws no moral distinction between the innocent civilians killed by bombs and the terrorists who placed them is a step too far. Not only is it offensive to place the likes of nurse Marie Wilson, killed at Enniskillen, alongside Shankill bomber Thomas Begley, it takes no account of the thousands who were injured, nor of the practical difficulties of deciding who is eligible to receive the cash after all this time.

As an outsider, I have some sympathy with Bradley and Eames. "There should be no hierarchy of victims," they say. "There's no difference in a mother's tears." I see what they're getting at. If you're not involved, it is possible to acknowledge that in entrenched conflicts, everyone suffers – the innocent and guilty alike. And to concede that some of those who joined the IRA or UDA were also victims caught up in the cycle of violence.

But this being so, wouldn't it be better to put the money into some much-needed cross-community facility like a new maternity hospital or school? That would be far more in tune with the spirit of the 190-page report, which aims to bring some of the lessons learned from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear on the troubled province.

And that, sadly, is where Eames and Bradley have shot themselves in the foot. By allowing this one negative recommendation to overshadow the other 29 they have distracted attention from their over-arching theme: that what the people of Northern Ireland need is recognition, not in the form of a financial settlement, but in the provision of a non-adversarial platform from which their stories can be told and the truth, as far as possible, established.

Key to this is the setting up of a Legacy Commission which would work with other bodies to investigate all 3,500 murders over five years and to chart a path to the future. The idea is that the victims' families would be invited to choose between pursuing prosecution or agreeing to forgo it in exchange for a better understanding of how their relatives died. There would be no more expensive and divisive public inquiries, such as the ongoing Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday; and after the five-year period had elapsed, a line would be drawn under the conflict.

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Even this proposal is not without its critics: there are those who believe that – for all the hype – South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission favoured the perpetrators over the victims and brought more distress than consolation to some of those involved. There are also questions as to how effectively the Legacy Commission would investigate allegations of collusion between the UK Government, the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries.

But the central premise of the initiative – that giving the people a voice may help them come to terms with their troubled history – should not be dismissed by the kind of cynical naysayers who once held the region to ransom. The gaffe over the 12,000 "recognition" pay-outs is a set-back. But Northern Ireland is used to set-backs and with the universal condemnation it has attracted, this one is likely to vanish from the political agenda as quickly as it appeared, leaving the coast clear for further progress.

The bad, old days of hard-faced name-calling may resurface from time to time, but for all its predictability Northern Ireland is a land of surprises: if Gerry Adams can reinvent himself as a mild-mannered twinkly-eyed statesman, and Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley can laugh so much together they are nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers, then truly anything is possible.