Peter Hain is out of order in calling for Bloody Sunday soldiers to be immune from prosecution

To those of us from Northern Ireland, the past can’t just be brushed aside

Share

I’m sure that other than in North Korea politicians aren’t supposed to step in and stop police investigations. Yet Peter Hain yesterday stated that it was a waste of police time and money to investigate the soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday atrocity. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he defended the “On the Run” letters that provoked such a wave of controversy last week – and in doing so, used the moment to put up an idea he has long held dear: paratroopers who killed 14 people in the Bogside in Derry on 30 January 1972 (13 on the day, one of injuries later) should not be charged for their crimes.

Why is Peter Hain trying to circumvent justice? One clue: he wrote that the north of Ireland “looks over its shoulder too much at the past, rather than to the future”. It is this metaphor that I think reveals his perspectival error. When you live in Northern Ireland, the past is not behind you. It is in the soil beneath our feet. And beneath the surface grow the shoots from seeds planted years before.

Yes, there was a peace process. Yes, there was an agreement on a Good Friday that war should cease. It wasn’t just a war on two fronts, though. And so the agreement wasn’t the end of fighting and the beginning of peace. It was a line drawn in the history books, a line of pebbles on bloodied soil that said “this far and no further”. To get all those pebbles in place was a feat of delicacy and compromise from political factions and terrorist splinters and political parties and communities and groups; voices clamouring from all sides about how and where the stones should be placed, what they’d do to lend their support and what they wouldn’t.

It was complicated. To get to that point required multifarious bargains, conversations through the night, deals made in alleyways, the prayers of church leaders, winks and nods to the deadliest of perpetrators, and declarations of forgiveness from families whose sons and daughters died horrible deaths.

But new beginnings do not negate the past. They cannot. To imagine that they do is to imagine that there are no consequences. And to believe that there are no consequences turns the peace agreement into a PR exercise, a shiny plastic floor tacked into the soil, with no foundations, no strength or stability to deal with what inevitably comes up from the soil beneath.

The On the Runs letters pushed their way up above the surface last week, dislodging the plastic boards that the Northern Ireland politicians are standing on. The revelations shook the NI government, with first minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign. That’s what happens when you pretend the past didn’t happen.  This is why Peter Hain is incorrect.

The Saville Inquiry, which ended in 2010 after 12 years, concluded in gut-wrenching terms that the battalion sent into the Bogside was at best off-message, and at worst, out of control. David Cameron, in response, apologised: the murders were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. The Inquiry presented prima facie evidence that individual soldiers had committed crimes. And so, in a step of logic that should not be questioned, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is in the process of doing what is surely a norm for police forces: to detect and investigate crime.

Fresh posters have been put up in Derry, calling for witnesses, and paratroopers involved have received letters asking them for questioning. One paratrooper spoke out yesterday, railing against the “injustice” that would see him questioned, but would see terrorists given amnesty. But how can justice be served if a terrorist and an employee of the state are given an equal level of accountability?

Peter Hain says that people look too much to the past. But Bloody Sunday is an open wound. And the feeling on the ground in Derry is one of deep suspicion. Never mind that people think that the fresh investigation is a mere publicity exercise, people in the Bogside, aren’t trusting of the “comfort letters”.

At some point, when there has been a war, you get over certain things. It has been difficult for some groups to reconcile that Martin McGuinness is now in power. But things move on. And less violence and more diplomacy is progress. When I go back home, Belfast is different from when I was growing up. There were bag searches in shopping centres. Army vans trundled down the streets. Machine guns were part of routine police wear.

It’s better now: the outer dimensions of life in Northern Ireland are changing. But the past happened. And like bindweed, you can’t keep chopping down the stems that pop up above the surface, because that way you’re not dealing with the problem. What’s beneath the surface will just spread out, become more gnarled and tangled. The consequences of war are knotty, difficult to handle, thorny and bloody. But they must be faced. They must be unpicked. Or there will be no chance for anything new to grow.

@claredwyerh

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific