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Andrew Young: Losses on all sides in Northern Ireland's Troubles need to be recognised

Picture_2_2 Andrew Young is a Conservative activist who grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives and works in London, where he is chairman of Parkside ward Conservatives in the London Borough of Wandsworth. Here he argues that a definitive recognition of all losses in the Troubles is needed, albeit not in the form of a cash payment, as recommended by the recent Eames-Bradley Report.

In 1993 delivery two men entered a chip shop on the Shankill Road, the heart of loyalist Belfast, and set a large bomb on the counter. In the resulting explosion, ten people were killed and many more buried under the rubble of the partially demolished building - leading to evocative footage on the nightly news of ordinary people frantically shifting bricks and timber by hand to free the survivors.

In a report by the ‘Consultative Group on the Past’, chaired by Lords Eames and Bradley, the families of each person killed in the explosion would receive £12,000 – including the family of the IRA bomber who delivered the bomb and set the fuse.

Predictably in a country that has defined sectarian conflict over the past forty years, the reaction was fierce. Families of innocent victims disrupted the start of the report’s launch, and once more Northern Ireland’s tribal politicians were delivered with a prime opportunity to play to the stands, with angry denunciations of the report's findings or each other.

However, amid the clamour and angry scenes, there remains a grudging acceptance that some sort of settlement is needed to allow Northern Ireland’s fractured community to definitively move on from the endless cycle of violence and retribution.

Modelled at least partially on South Africa’s successful but controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the report recommends:-

  • An independent Legacy Commission to last five years with a £100m bursary to tackle the tasks of securing reconciliation, justice and information recovery;
  • A Reconciliation Forum to help the Legacy Commission and the existing Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland (CVSNI);
  • That the nearest relative of each person who died in the conflict should receive a £12,000 "recognition payment";
  • A new Review and Investigation Unit to replace the police Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman's unit dealing with historical cases;
  • No new public inquiries;
  • That the Legacy Commission should make proposals on how "a line might be drawn" (unlikely to be amnesties for terrorists); and
  • An annual Day of Reflection and Reconciliation and a shared memorial to the conflict.

With the luxury of being able to observe events back home from a safe distance, free from the heated dinnertime debates and wall-to-wall news coverage, I can see the pressing need for the Province’s economic recovery to be matched by a cultural renaissance.

Ulster has always had a fiercely tribal culture, reinforced by the constant stream of violence and furious argument. I vividly remember the grim housing estates with their flags and painted kerbstones and huge murals on every gable wall honouring armed, masked men.

Which brings us to the purpose behind the report. In its 190 pages the authors must set out a framework for overturning 30 years of sectarian conflict and 300 years of accumulated baggage. Before rushing to judgement, the Conservative leadership must weigh up that awesome truth, that here at last is a chance to bring to an end the relentless cycle of violence once and for all. This means being prepared to think the unthinkable.

Chief amongst these is some sort of recognition that all sides have suffered in the Troubles. Whilst it was a crass insult to lump the families of innocent victims with those of terrorists, the stark truth remains that even paramilitaries believe (incredibly) they have been victims of the events of the past decades.

With this in mind, a definitive recognition of all loss is necessary. Is a cash lump sum the best way to do that? No. Payment that places innocents on a par with terrorists will rightly be perceived as blood money. However a Legacy Commission with powers to aggressively seek out and document the horrors of the past will go a long way to ensuring that no one can stake an especial claim to victimhood.

Education too, both by observance of a memorial day and by the use of public information to widen understanding of the conflict and its causes will go a long way to narrowing the gap between separate communities. Integration of schooling would also sweep away the last great bastion of sectarianism, though I don’t imagine this will happen in the worst areas in my lifetime.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I would propose that we replace the bureaucratic approach of the report with the human, realist approach of the South Africans. Rather than doling out money and relying on committees to deliver a cultural sea change we must confront the issue head on.

Amnesties for offences linked to the Troubles (including those committed by the army and police) combined with a detailing of all crimes that were committed and their causes should be combined with a public apology. Terrorists (including the other Shankill Road bomber) have already been released, but with no need for contrition or public admission of wrongdoing. Linking the amnesty with the need to ask for forgiveness and admit wrongdoing could perhaps finally lay to rest the ghosts of Ulster’s conflict.


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