Northern Ireland needs a new beginning

More news has emerged highlighting the difficulties Northern Ireland has in coming to terms with the past.

Just a day after Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin called for an end to prosecutions being made against those involved in the troubles prior to the Good Friday Peace Agreement, more news has emerged of the difficulties in coming to terms with the past.

The news to come out of tonight’s BBC Panorama programme of the existence in the 1970s of a secret unit of the British Army which, allegedly, carried out acts of cold blooded murder of unarmed people, will yet again re-awake the raw emotions, hurt and grief that remain all too close to the surface of Northern Ireland life.

Coupled with debate, reported on by Left Foot Forward yesterday, about Gerry Adams’ alleged role in the ‘disappeared’, and it is clear that those on all sides in Northern Ireland continue to feel the despair that in many cases justice has not been done and killers remain on the loose.

Such feelings will be compounded further by the news that the criminal justice inspectorate in Northern Ireland is today warning that the cost of tackling crimes from the past is having “negative consequences for current day criminal justice issues”.

But how should Northern Ireland address its past?

In its editorial on the Larkin proposal, whilst dubbing it ‘breath-taking’ the Belfast Telegraph has nonetheless argued that it needs to be given serious attention. Whilst recognising the difficulties involved, the paper concludes:

“Unless we, like Mr Larkin, dare to think the unthinkable, the legacy of the past will remain a festering sore, picked at piecemeal for generations and preventing real healing.”

How that healing should be achieved I shall leave to eminently more knowledgeable people than me to debate – led by those who grieve for loved ones – but it is something that needs addressing and addressing soon.

Northern Ireland has made huge progress in a relatively short period of time. Sinn Fein and the DUP find themselves round the same table at Stormont, governing together in the interests of all sections of the community.

To build on that progress, Northern Ireland now needs a cathartic moment, a moment when all cards can be placed on the table, when the relatives of the victims can find out what happened to their loved ones and when those who committed atrocities can hang their heads in shame.

And yes, however easy it might be for me to say it, moments of forgiveness too have a huge role to play. For in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”

Time will tell if such a new beginning can or will ever be possible in Northern Ireland.

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