A fat black book squats on one of my shelves at home: Lost Lives. Compiled by i’s Ireland Correspondent David McKittrick and colleagues, it is an encyclopaedia cataloguing the stories of the men, women and children who have died in the Troubles – every death from every side, more than 3,700 of them over three decades. (Or should that be five decades?) It’s not the jolliest bedtime read, but is a superb work of scholarship, and perhaps the most important book to have been written about the Troubles.
“#699. December 7, 1972. Jean McConville, West Belfast. Civilian, Catholic, 37, widow, mother... Abducted from her home in the Divis area and killed by the IRA…”
All history, right? Northern Ireland is seen around the world as a model of conflict resolution, and not without justification, when you consider where we were in the 1990s. Just four weeks ago, as Martin McGuinness dressed in white tie for a state banquet at Windsor Castle, Have I Got News for You could joke about the Queen wearing a balaclava to meet the former IRA commander, now Deputy First Minister.
Some ghosts, though, have never been put to rest. Seven of “the Disappeared” have never been found. Many other killings – by the IRA, Protestant paramilitaries and British security forces – remain unresolved. Under the Good Friday deal, those imprisoned for paramilitary crimes were eligible for early release, and in February this year we learnt that hundreds of ex-republicans “on the run” had been told, controversially, that they no longer faced arrest.
But as new evidence emerges, it becomes impossible for Northern Ireland to bury its past. How, then, to confront it, without undermining peace? It is time for politicians from all parties in Stormont, Dublin and Westminster to talk seriously about whether they can establish South African-style truth and reconciliation hearings, in which individuals can publicly declare their crimes and express contrition, in exchange for freedom from prosecution.