Where the Truth Lies

Celtic Life International columnst Maurice Fitzpatrick weighs in on the recent revelations in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has asked leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, to give up the truth about the murder of innocents during the Troubles. Kenny also said that Adams ‘should have the decency’ to help the Smithwick Tribunal with their investigation into IRA atrocities. This came after Adams’ hedged apology to Jerry McCabe’s family, just a few years after he refused to condemn the killing and indeed campaigned for the killers’ release. Kenny thought this apology ironic and mooted that he would welcome a truth commission. Adams he has often enthused over the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission in the North. Yet a truth commission is not at all in Adams’ interests.

‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer’. Adam’s relationship to the truth has been at best fleeting down the years and Kenny was right to characterise Adams’ apology as ironic. Any suggestion that a rash of transparency has suddenly come over him is more ironic still. Adams, when canvassing and dealing with the media in yesteryear, was not averse to threatening people who pressed him about his past or who denigrated the bona fides of Sinn Féin. The leadership of Sinn Féin today, by contrast, has adopted the tack of blithe denial of past actions.

Martin McGuinness, when faced in a television debate in 2011 with the charge that he had been the leader of the IRA into the 1980s and 1990s—and a pile of books stacked before him wherein that claim was substantiated—did not waver from his position that he left the IRA in 1974. McGuinness was challenged several times by citizens during his Irish presidential campaign over his role in IRA atrocities and his foot-dragging in giving up information. During one such encounter, when he was confronted by David Kelly, McGuinness got a taste of what a truth commission would feel like. David Kelly is the son of Private Patrick Kelly, an Irish soldier killed by the IRA. Kelly collared McGuinness in full view of television cameras and said: ‘I want justice for my father. I believe you know the names of the killers of my father and I want to you to tell me who they are. He was loyal to the Irish Republic and I’m loyal to him as a son, and I’m going to get justice for him. I want the truth today’. McGuinness countered that he was sympathetic but knew nothing.

A truth commission would inevitably stir the hens in the chicken coop up. But will it happen? The peace process is too beloved by its authors, beneficiaries and implementers ever to be seriously jeopardised. The presiding honchos in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, both had their eyes fixed firmly on their legacies and were anxious to paper over certain cracks; truth about the past being one of the cracks. So while it suits Enda Kenny to taunt Adams about his shadowy past at the hustings and during party political tussles, it is unlikely that he would wish to harm the shaky peace that has been achieved in the North.

The appetite for a methodical examination of the past certainly exists among some of the families of victims. To other victims’ families, bumping into convicted killers in the supermarket, knowing that they got early release because of the amnesty, is all the truth they need. There is also a perception in the North that ex-paramilitaries will come forward and spill their guts (recently deceased Dolores Price is an example) and that gradually the deniers will look even more ridiculous than they do already. Maybe that outcome is preferable to the spurious crusades of over-paid lawyers and the goose-stepping of politicians and their fixers?

The truth continues to bubble to the surface in legal tribunals, newspaper interviews—even scholarly archives of which the current wrangle over the Boston College tapes is an example. BC’s archive is a political football: the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who are using their charmed position within the UK, and its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the US, to gain access to protected testimonies of paramilitaries; contesting this rather disastrous move is a confederacy of Irish-American lawyers. I do not know what the PSNI would do with the information if they get it, but it is almost certain that Adams and his colleagues at Sinn Féin would be implicated by the disclosure.

Politics is the art of compromise. Art, on the other hand, brooks no compromise. Unsurprisingly, then, some of the best work on truth-seeking in the North has come from writers and film-makers. Consider Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Five Minutes of Heaven, in which Liam Neeson plays a loyalist terrorist who is haunted well into adult life for having assassinated a Catholic. The film pivots on an encounter between Neeson and the murdered man’s brother, played by James Nesbitt. The film manages to penetrate under the skin of gentle tones of reconciliation and exposes the repulsion felt by victims toward perpetrators of crime against innocents. In the film, the callow celebrants at the ritual of the encounter between perpetrator and victim hunger for tears, sorrow and forgiveness, but the viewer knows that Nesbitt is carrying a knife—will he use it? The uncertainty strain of the film holds admirably well throughout. David Park’s novel The Truth Commissioner is another subtle look at the beneficiaries of the Northern settlement and how they coast along, unaccountable for their past wrongs.

As Hannah Arendt rightly observed, total oblivion is not possible; some trace of victim testimony remains and any attempt by a state to make opposition ‘disappear in silent anonymity’ will fail. Adams and company can kick the can down the road but they cannot kick it into oblivion. Sooner or later, the truth will out.