Monday, 6 August 2018

Féile 2018 - Unfinished Peace - Independent Commission on Information Retrieval

I was asked to speak at the Féile last week as part of the Victims and Survivors Forum. The topic was "Unfinished Peace". Three colleagues and I touched upon the range of mechanisms laid out in the Stormont House Agreement aimed at dealing with the legacy of our violent conflict. The UK Government is currently consulting on the legislation which will form the basis of these institutions. I was tasked with looking at the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

These are my opening remarks:

I have been engaged with people in the so-called victims’ sector for about ten years now and I have worn many different hats, at different times, in different places.  I have been a direct victim, a victims’ campaigner, an inside researcher, a victims’ group member, a victims’ group chair, a citizen educator, a victims’ Forum member, but most of all, I am Paul Gallagher, a member of this society. And as a member of this society, this broken and divided society, I have a responsibility to help fix it and bring us together in any way I can.

When I look at all previous attempts to deal with the past, I always ask myself who is it for and will it do any good? Some will say: dealing with the past is only for the victims and survivors, the families of the dead; and the injured. To help them to come to terms with what happened to them. I believe that dealing with the legacy of the past is for all of us in society.  Whether we were directly affected or not, we are all living with the consequences of that past. A cursory glance at the TV news or the papers, on any day of the week, will reveal some reference to the conflict. It permeates through society; it poisons our body politic.  We are all affected by it and if we don’t deal with it, it will always be there.

Over these past ten years, and for many years before that, I have met people who have been affected in a number of ways by the conflict. They have been asking for a variety of things that they hope will remedy their harms. Justice, truth, acknowledgement, and reparations.  I now want to concentrate on truth, but in many ways, all of these are interconnected.  The current consultation on the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) deals with truth through the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the ICIR.

ICIR is one of the mechanisms to come out of the SHA, agreed by the two governments and the five main parties in late 2014.  It did not, however, come out of thin air. It came, like many of these mechanisms, from the demands of victims and survivors themselves, from the people who were most affected, from the people who need answers to the many questions they have been asking for decades.

It is based on the need to know about the death of their loved ones. About finding information as to their final moments. About whether they died in an instant or whether they suffered. About whether they were targeted or whether it was a random killing. It is about the why and the how. About getting to the truth of what happened to them.

It is about engaging with those who caused the harm; and asking questions. For in many cases, it is they and only they who hold the answers, who hold the truth.

The answers may not always be what we want to hear. Sometimes the truth can be bitter. It can be hard to swallow. But in my experience, it is better to have the truth out in the open instead of being hidden in dark corners. Surrounded by conjecture, rumour, victim-blaming, stigma, uncertainty, doubt, and downright lies. It is only once we have the truth that we can then process it in our minds, and be able to live with it.

But this process should not about those that caused harm spinning the truth to suit their ends. To justify what they did. To lie about what happened so they can live with themselves.
I have my own experience of this type of thing. There was a book written a few years back about a certain sectarian gang and their heroic operations, taking on the enemy.  They gave details of all their killings, and failed attempts, of which my attack was one.  Their claim was that all of their targets were legitimate targets. That they were all members of paramilitary groups; and so deserved their fate. The fact is that their targets were mainly civilians. Sitting in their homes. Walking down the street. Driving their taxis. In the right place at the right time. Just living their lives.

But this gang got their version of the story down on paper first. They muddied the waters. They blamed the victims. They stigmatised them.

ICIR must not become the same thing. Their reports must be scrutinised. They need to be verified. To be credible. To be put against other evidence and corroborated.  This is the supposed remit of ICIR.

Now, when it comes to engaging with ICIR, people may not get everything they are looking for but at least they will have tried and may get something. It may be good enough.  It may be enough to clear someone’s name. To remove the stigma around the killing.  It may be enough to give the families a sense of closure, in that, this part of their journey is complete, that the quest for truth and acknowledgement has been satisfied, and they can move onto the next stage of their lives.  So many have been held back by this denial of truth, unable to move on.  It is hoped that ICIR can be the mechanism to help with this process.

This requires a buy-in from all concerned. From the families and from those who caused their harm. Expectations will need to be managed. Trust will need to be built. Fears will need to be overcome. 

There are concerns about how much information will be forthcoming from different actors.  About who keeps records and who doesn’t. About what will be told and what will be concealed. About who will be vindicated and who will be embarrassed. About whether something revealed can be used against someone else to bring them before the courts. About whether people are labelled traitors or touts. All of these things can scupper the process and leave victims and survivors wanting. This cannot happen again.

That is why I am asking all stakeholders to think about who this is for how they can do some good.  You can be cynical and only give snippets of information that serve your own agenda; or you can fully engage with the process and give the victims what they need.

Put yourselves in their shoes and ask yourselves would this be good enough for me. Could I go a bit further without putting others in jeopardy?  Is this the best I can do to help people to move on? Because if you don’t you will be holding the victims back. And not just them but their children and grand-children, even those yet to be born.

We all know that some families have been campaigning for truth for nearly five decades now. Those who hold any knowledge must understand that these families will never give up. By releasing the truth, you are releasing your hold over these families.

Allow your members to engage with ICIR if they so wish. Don’t shame them or call them traitors. Do something for yourselves, for the victims, and for society. Take a risk with ICIR.
And I say this to the various groups within Loyalist circles: don’t hold yourselves back because you weren’t part of the political negotiations around it. Once ICIR is set up engage with it. Find the courage to do the right thing. Don’t let the petty politics of inadequate negotiations or the lack of an electoral mandate stop you from engaging in what could help your fellow citizens.

The same goes for the British Army and other state forces: come forward if you have something to say – don’t let the top brass muzzle you for fear of embarrassing the Crown. Get it off your chest. Tell the truth about what you did. About what happened in terms of collusion or in the many shooting incidents that you were involved in.

To Republicans: let go of your Omerta vows – set the truth free. Lift the lid on the secrets you hold. Tell all that you can without putting people at risk. Be honest with the community that gave you support, about those who were branded touts and informers by the Stakeknives of this world.  Give the families of those who served in the police or the army the answers that they too deserve. Don’t just pass yourselves with the stock justification that they were legitimate targets – think about the individual, the person – think about the family they left behind. What can you do for them?

To all stakeholders, to the people who will hopefully engage with ICIR, whether you are the victims or whether you are someone who caused harm – put yourselves in the shoes of the other – empathise with them. Ask yourselves, what would be good enough for you?  What do you expect they could reasonably give you and what could you live with? 

That is the promise of the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval.  It is a way to gain information that may give victims’ families some knowledge or understanding about the death of their loved ones.  Now is the time for the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities and deliver for these families.  By helping them to move on in their life journeys you can also help the rest of society do the same.

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