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

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
It is much easier to correct errors on the web than in print  

There would be no need for corrections if we didn’t make mistakes in the first place

Will Gore
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links