It was, we must hope, a sign that common sense is returning to Northern Ireland after a week of high emotion. John Downey yesterday cancelled the “welcome home” party organised to mark his return to Ulster after the collapse of the trial in which he was charged with the IRA bombing of a Household Cavalry parade in Hyde Park in 1982. “I would never try to insult or add to the hurt of anybody who is bereaved,” said the 62-year-old who was convicted of membership of the IRA back in the 1970s. That is progress of a sort.
Had wise counsels prevailed, the case against him would never have been brought. But it was. And the resulting public postures which were struck, on all sides, have done some damage in a province to which peace and prosperity have steadily returned since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
I was in Belfast just a couple of weeks ago and the place is almost unrecognisable, in temperature and temperament, from the time of the Troubles when I was a reporter there. The wounds of those times go deep, but they are healing over. Serious politicians, in Belfast, London and in Dublin – which I visited last month – are alarmed at the volcanic intrusion of the Downey case. The news that 180 republican suspects had been sent letters saying the police would pursue no case against them has sent old foes back to stockades they had earlier left for the common ground of ordinary politics.
So we had unionist leaders blustering about secret deals – about which they actually knew the salient outlines, even if they deemed it politic not to ask the details.
We had British ministers insisting that the letters are not get-out-of-jail cards – when they know full well that an unarticulated de facto amnesty was key to the complex and sensitive peace negotiations of the time.
And we had Sinn Fein leaders preposterously asserting that everyone in possession of such a letter is innocent – when they compiled the list of who, within the penumbra of dubious republican activity, was to receive the letters.
Bringing peace to a province troubled by a century of blood feuds was no easy task in the 1990s. Peace was not a single linear process, but a complex interaction of a range of parallel strategies. Violence had to cease without the immediate laying down of arms. Memories, embodied in symbols like flags and parades, had to be defused.
Political and economic reconstruction was separate from the bringing together of polarised communities, but they interact. The absence of violence was not the same thing as real peace, but it was, and is, on the way to it.
Of course, there can be no real peace without justice, but justice can be partial and incremental. It need not always involve prosecutions.
But the politics of retribution have a strong emotional pull. That is why some argue that if no one is to be prosecuted for the killing of British soldiers in Hyde Park, there should be no prosecutions of British soldiers who killed unarmed civilians at the Bloody Sunday civil rights march in 1972.
But just as striking was the call last week by Jude Whyte, whose mother Peggy Whyte was killed by a loyalist bomber in 1984, for no further action to be taken to hunt down his mother’s murderer.
Peace is about drawing a line under the past, he said, calling for a general amnesty and the wiping clean of the slate for all. He wants a one-year Truth Commission “where people will tell their stories knowing that they will not be prosecuted”. Ironically, Downey has been involved in a proto-truth process, facilitating paramilitaries of both sides in talks at the Corrymeela Community, a Christian group whose objective is the promotion of reconciliation and peace-building.
Forget the politics and just look at the law, a radio interviewer said to an Ulster barrister the other day. Such an approach is fatally foolish. The politics cannot be forgotten in a country where the past is still so much part of the present. When the first of those letters were sent, the IRA had still not put their weapons beyond use – and grassroots republicans were “becoming wobbly” about the nascent peace process, as the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told Tony Blair privately.
Loyalists may huff and puff today about “secret deals”, but the key features of the accommodation were made clear to Parliament in 2002 and 2005 – and to the Northern Ireland Police Board, which contained unionists, in 2010. “You’d have to be a very unobservant politician to not know this was happening,” as Blair’s chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell said last week.
Peace comes dropping slow, in the words of Ireland’s great poet WB Yeats. It is incumbent on those in positions of responsibility to assist, rather than disturb, that slow, steady settlement.
Paul Vallely, is visiting professor in public ethics and media at the University of Chester