22 July 2004 Edition
What is a fair Truth Recovery process?
Earlier this summer, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Truth Recovery, Philip McGuigan, accused the British Secretary of State of "breathtaking hypocrisy" as Paul Murphy toured South Africa studying their model of truth and reconciliation. He criticised Murphy's attempt to portray the British as honest brokers rather than protagonists to the conflict in Ireland and said that the British Government "cannot be allowed to take the lead in developing a model for truth recovery while simultaneously ignoring their central role as protagonists in the conflict". In September last, Sinn Féin attempted to begin a debate around the issue of truth when it published a consultation document on the issue. Here, McGuigan expands on the party's position.
An Phoblacht: There has been a lot of media coverage lately on the issue of dealing with the past and Paul Murphy's announcement of a pre-consultation initiative — what is your reading of this?
Philip McGuigan: The first anyone heard of this initiative was on the day of the publication of the Cory reports into collusion. At the press conference where Tony Blair and Paul Murphy announced yet another delay in setting up the long promised inquiry into Pat Finucane's murder, they introduced this notion of 'consultations about consultations' on 'ways of dealing with the past'. So, on the very day the spotlight was shining on the British State's murderous connections to unionist paramilitaries, they announced a 'pre-consultation' initiative.
OK, but is it not a good thing that at least people are talking about finding ways of dealing with the past? Is this not, after all, what Sinn Féin advocated in its Truth document?
Yes, discussion of this issue is a good thing. In the document you refer to we called for a focused discussion between all relevant parties on the issues of Truth and Truth Recovery. What we have here, though, is a unilateral announcement by one side of the conflict, the British, that they are going to consult on finding "ways of dealing with the past". That is the height of arrogance and hypocrisy. We said, in the proposals we published last September, that while we had reservations about the issue of Truth Commissions or Truth Recovery Processes, it was something that needed to be looked at. We also said, and this is a view shared by all the experts in the field, that any process would have to be independent.
Given their attitude to date towards inquiries and even inquests, do you really expect the British or the PSNI to cooperate with a Truth Commission?
First of all, we are not at that point. We are still in the early stages of the public discussion on how best to handle a number of difficult and complex issues. These include how to remember the past, how to avoid the mistakes of the past, how to help the relatives of victims seek closure and how to bring about a process of national reconciliation. It should not be taken as read that this discussion will result in a 'Truth Commission'.
What is the Sinn Féin position?
Our position is, let's have the discussion. We don't claim to have a blueprint, but we are willing to listen and to discuss it with others. We are willing to work with others to achieve a credible process. There are clear lessons to be drawn from other experiences across the world — the need for any process to be independent of the protagonists, for example. And we know that whatever emerges, if it is to have any chance of success, it will require full co-operation and disclosure from all participants. Yes, we have seen that the attitude of the British in the past has consistently been one of concealment and denial. They have yet to even acknowledge that they played a role in the conflict, much less the full extent of it. Should we give up on any possibility of 'Truth' then? No. We owe it to the relatives of all those who died in the conflict, to all those who suffered through injury, imprisonment or lost opportunity. Above all, we owe it to our children and to their children not to repeat the past.
What can republicans do?
There are a number of things we need to do individually and organisationally. We need to study the issue, to look at what is being said by whom and why. Hugh Orde, for example, wants an end to inquiries because they are damaging the morale of his force. This is a motivating factor in all of his recent interventions on the subject. And we need to note that when the British talk about 'dealing with the past' and 'a peace and reconciliation process' — they pointedly don't mention 'Truth' and they certainly don't mention collusion. They want us to forget about the past because the truth completely undermines their position in Ireland. There are others who mouth clichés and waffle and who clearly don't know or don't care that they are treading on the hurt of lots of people.
In practical terms, though, what does this mean?
We need to bring the discussion into the cumainn and comhairlí ceantair. We need to acquaint ourselves with the issues and we need then to ensure that the republican voice is heard in the wider debate. There's an old saying that history is written by the winner — and in one way this debate is about whose version of history prevails. We're not going to allow Kenneth Bloomfield or Paul Murphy airbrush our experience out of history. So we need to write letters to the newspapers, ensure an attendance and participation in public discussions - in short, we need to counter the ongoing attempts by the British or unionists to demonise or criminalise our community.
You mention unionists; do they have a position on this?
The political representatives of unionism, Jeffrey Donaldson, Willie Frazer, the Police Federation and others are vehemently opposed to any notion of a truth process. Why? They are afraid that their version of the conflict will be demolished in any serious examination of the facts. On the other hand, there are those from the unionist community who believe that we do need some formal mechanism to facilitate closure for victims' relatives, to heal the wounds of society, to achieve reconciliation and, above all, to ensure that we never again experience the type of conflict we are emerging from. We need to engage with these people, we need to work with them because their aims are our aims.
Some republicans are very suspicious of this issue and feel it will be used as a weapon against them.
I can well understand their suspicions. What I say to them is that if we were to ignore the debate and leave it to our political opponents, we would undoubtedly have an anti-republican outcome. History would reflect the British-unionist version of the conflict, the Sir Kenneth Bloomfield definition of 'victims' would take root and 'reconciliation' would be reconciliation to British rule in Ireland. This is a difficult subject, yes, but we simply can't afford to bury our head in the sand and pretend that the debate isn't happening. We have to be proactively part of it.