Dealing with the Past – Towards a New Ireland?

By Tomás McGoldrick, Ireland Correspondent 


Passers-by and residents in leafy Camden Square last Saturday would have been surprised at the small but noisy protest outside the London Irish Centre and the various banners reading ‘Justice for the 21’ and ‘Gerry and the Peacemakers Will Always Walk Alone While IRA Victims are Ignored’.

The protesters were from the group ‘Justice for the 21’ campaigning for a new investigation into the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, which led to the deaths of 21 people. No organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack but it is widely believed the bombs were planted by the Provisional IRA.

The main target of their ire was Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who was speaking at the Sinn Féin organised ‘Towards a New Ireland’ conference. The organisers did try to keep the protest peaceful, even shouting down one participant who tried to start a rousing chant of ‘No Surrender’. But as the day went on tempers frayed.

Attendees were told by some of the protesters who brandished a loyalist flag that they were attending a ‘murderer’s conference’ amid jeers and shouts of ‘shame on you’. There are links between the Justice for the 21 campaign and the far-right group UK Resistance, who describe themselves as a ‘patriotic Christian working class united front resisting the cultural class war being waged against the British people.’

Later in the day police had to intervene to stop a verbal altercation between the protesters and peace campaigner Colin Parry, whose son Tim was killed in the Warrington bombing, and who was speaking at the conference.

Colin Parry denied that he was “kowtowing to terrorists”, saying: “I don’t do that and I never will, but I recognise that the armed struggle is over and we have to build new ways. That’s my simple position.”

The mood inside the conference couldn’t have been more different, with representatives of the Irish community in London and British trade unionists joining the expected republicans and socialists. A petition was circulated for the release of the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and there were representatives from Justice for Columbia.

It would be easy to dismiss these events as Sinn Féin preaching to the converted, but not all the speakers or attendees were necessarily supporters of Irish unity. John McAllister, the co-founder of the liberal unionist party NI21 received plenty of praise from delegates, both for attending in the first place and his contribution to the debate.

Other speakers included Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, and Christine Quigley of London Young Labour. Nobody seemed particularly bothered by the protests outside. Indeed, Gerry Adams’s response to the protestors was that they “should have been inside the hall”.

Perhaps the most important issue facing those involved in the process is dealing with the legacy of the past. How do we agree who is a victim? Which cases should be reopened, if any? Who should face prosecution?

With an absence of a South African style truth and reconciliation process, cases are dealt with on a seemingly arbitrary basis. This helps feeds the perception, mainly among loyalists, that justice is only for ‘themmums.’

With news this week that the Paratroopers responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings may face prosecution, this feeling is only likely to grow.

What is needed is a proper truth and justice process in the north of Ireland, with all the participants in the conflict willing to get involved and admit what they did or didn’t do during the conflict.

As well as the republican and loyalist paramilitaries this must include the Irish and British governments. From allegations that the Dublin administration encouraged the setting up of the Provisionals and provided a safe haven for them to retreat to, to the well documented British state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries; these questions need to answered.

The forthcoming book by Anne Cadwallader, ‘Lethal allies: British collusion in Ireland’ promises to reveal much more detail of this collusion. It is no use asking only one party to the conflict to admit their role, the process must be comprehensive or it will be doomed to failure.

It’s easy to ignore the legacy of Northern Ireland’s conflict, for many in Britain and the wider world the troubles are considered to be ‘sorted’ and the peace process model is held up as an example of how to resolve other conflicts around the world. Sinn Féin and DUP ministers jet off around the world to tell others why it’s good to talk but on the issue of dealing with the legacy of the past they couldn’t disagree more.

The flag protests which have been on going in Northern Ireland since the Union flag came down from Belfast city hall and the associated upsurge in violence and communal tension have caused many to have to look again at where we are 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

There is an increasing section of Loyalism which see no benefit to the current setup; their leaders sold them the Agreement as a victory for unionism and they do not understand why republicans and nationalists keep getting ‘concessions’.

Unionist politicians have been too afraid of their own hard line elements to clearly state that a shared future in Northern Ireland means a recognition of the Irish identity and culture of nationalists and republicans. They need to explain to their own constituents that they cannot march wherever they want, cannot fly their flag every day of the year and cannot resort to street violence when they don’t get their way.

Like the attendees at Saturday’s conference it is easy to dismiss those outside the ‘process’ waving their flags and yelling abuse across the street as irrelevant. The danger is that unless the inter-party talks chaired by Richard Haass can come up with viable solutions to dealing with parades, flags and the past the voices outside will only get louder.

1 Response

  1. Mark Doolittle

    Great article. I was wondering if the retrospective of Sean Russell and Operation Dove went ahead at the conference? Russell was a Republican leviathan – who’d have thought he’d end up being dumped out of a U-Boat?

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