Peter Hain’s suggestion of an end to Ireland’s Troubles-related prosecutions, reflecting an idea that has emerged from Belfast legal circles, is an attempt to cut the Gordian knot which has bedevilled the peace process. The notion of solving the long-standing issue with a single stroke is superficially appealing to many. But it has caused profound hurt to many bereaved families and helped to poison Belfast politics, which is currently in a surly state.
The peace process has thrown up many controversial issues, but few that have continued to inflict so much sharp pain and upset. Indeed, the question has been hotly debated for two full decades without a consensus emerging. Belfast politicians appear on television on a weekly basis arguing about it, very often in a singularly bad-tempered tone with much accusatory finger-pointing and point-scoring. This has caused many to despair of advances being made.
One of the numerous difficulties is that many of the scores of victim groups and individual activists are divided along political lines and pursue different aims. Some insist on full-scale independent public inquiries, some want prosecutions of those who killed their loved ones, others would settle for apologies. A surprising number say they have been consoled simply by receiving information about deaths. Others opt simply to grieve in silence; more treatment for deep-seated trauma should be made available for them. All cry out for justice, but there is no single definition of what this might look like.
While many are concerned purely with the personal and the humanitarian, other elements have political agendas. Some project that the IRA was virtually the only source of violence, though extreme Protestants killed more than a thousand people, too. Some emphasise security-force misbehaviour, others downplay it.
The prospects for dealing with such a tangled issue with a single bold stroke are not good. The idea springs partly from despair that nothing else has worked. And yet, after years of debate with no breakthrough, some progress has been made in recent months. Inter-party talks on a range of issues failed to reach agreement in December, yet unexpectedly there was movement on the question of dealing with the past.
The talks came up with a complex architecture which included a historical-investigations unit, an archive of conflict-related material, a reconciliation-monitoring group and an avenue for securing information on individual cases. This intricate structure lacked the apparent simplicity of the Hain proposal, yet it represented a practical approach. It was endorsed by nationalist parties, including Sinn Fein, but to general disappointment was rejected by Unionist parties. Nonetheless, agreement on that issue appeared so tantalisingly close that a fresh attempt is bound to be made in the future – not immediately, however, since elections and the unsettling marching season are in the offing.
Still, Martin McGuinness’s presence at the Queen’s banquet at Windsor Castle tonight is a sign progress can be made in even the longest-running dispute. There will always be a yawning gulf between Britain and Sinn Fein, but the sight of British royalty and Irish republicanism breaking bread together is a reminder that headway can be made in the most intractable conflicts.