Easy lies and late truths – The daily struggle of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

Press/Media: Public Engagement Activities


In the past three weeks two coroners inquests into disputed shootings during the Troubles have found that two civilians were unjustifiably shot by British soldiers. Manus Deery was 15 when a soldier in an observation post shot him dead in Derry/Londonderry in 1972. Bernard Watt was 28 when a soldier fatally shot him during a riot in Ardoyne in 1971. Both inquests represent some truth for the families in clearing the names of their loved ones. Yet some 45 years on from these shootings the failure to comprehensively deal with the past or even to fund the Lord Chief Justice’s plan for improving the efficiency of inquests so that they would be completed in five years instead of decades, represent a society and both governments that are dragging their heels on the past.

Some may argue that it is time to move on form the past, or that difficult issues around national security, the RHI scandal, or the Irish National Language Act need to be resolved first. National security is a thorny issue, but not unresolvable and well research solutions have been posed by Professor McEvoy and others. These issues are important, but for victims and survivors of the Troubles/conflict in and around Northern Ireland the past remains a constant struggle. Many of them wake up everyday reminded of the consequences of the past, whether the loss of a loved one by those bereaved, or chronic pain, mobility and health issues for individuals injured and their carers.

Part of this struggle with the past is victims and survivors are left to carry the burden of seeking public acknowledgement of their experience. The inquests in the shootings of Manus Deery and Bernard Watt, represent the struggle of families trying to overturn the lies and mistruths about the death of their loved ones, who were branded as carrying weapons and thus justified in being killed. In Deery’s inquest two soldiers’ statements testified to them seeing an individual with a rifle in the area when they open fired on the child. The Ministry of Defence acknowledged that Manus was innocent in November 2016 to the inquest. The coroner in the inquest found that,

‘Manus Deery was a totally innocent victim. He was not involved in any unlawful organisation or unlawful activity on the night of his death. He did not pose a threat to soldiers or to anyone else. I have no hesitation or any doubt in making this clear. The outcome of this inquest, above everything else, must be seen to vindicate fully the character of Manus Deery. [para.24]’

While this can be important recognition and vindication of Manus Deery for his family, it took decades for such acknowledgement of the truth to come out. The United Nations Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff has said such public pronouncements are vital in helping to ‘disburden the family members of victims from their sense of obligation to keep the memory of those who perished alive, thus allowing them to move on to other things.’ As with most processes to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, this is just one case amongst hundreds of unresolved killings, a piecemeal approach.

In his report last year on Northern Ireland Pablo de Greiff was critical of truth-seeking processes currently used in Northern Ireland focusing on just events and not analysing the structural or systematic causes of violence, the ad hoc nature of bodies, the fragmentation of cases, the focus on deaths to the exclusion of other violations and abuses, the perceived lack of independence of investigative mechanisms, and the overuse of national security exemptions to avoid disclosures. He also criticised the lack of reparations to victims, including the pension which Pablo de Greiff recommended that it ‘urgently needs resolved’. The pension for seriously injured victims is a form of acknowledging that these individuals did not deserve to suffer such injuries and are given sufficient means to alleviate the continuing suffering.

Finding the truth about the past in Northern Ireland has been reduced to defensive narratives. Truth about the past is adversarial, rather than inquisitorial in finding out how atrocities carried out by paramilitary or state forces occurred and if individuals can be brought to account. It may be that the longer we continue to delay dealing with the past, mistrust festers undermining the long term stability of Northern Ireland. Although there has been relative peace in Northern Ireland over the past two decades, the justifications for violence continue to shape the narratives of the past.

In the Bernard Watt inquest, allegations were heard this week during the inquest that the soldiers believed they were justified in shooting him as they saw him holding an explosive device which blew him down the street. This was rejected by the coroner, that while Mr Watt had willingly participated in the riot, there was no evidence to support he handled an explosive device. Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff argues that truth recovery bodies are unlikely to get the whole truth of the past, they can at least help to reduce the amount of permissible lies in a society. In the cases of Manus Deery and Bernard Watt, inquests into their deaths have made an important contribution in validating the family’s experience that their actions did not deserve for them to be killed.

Nonetheless, in both inquests the memories of witnesses at the scene of shootings were ‘distorted’, with witnesses remembering different facts. This highlights a consistent issue with trying to bring prosecutions for Troubles-related killings, that witness testimony can be unreliable and would not satisfy the burden of proof of beyond reasonable doubt for a criminal trial. This is not to say that individuals who intentionally or subjectively recklessly used violence should not be prosecuted if there is sufficient evidence, or investigations should not be conducted to lead to a prosecution (both are required by human rights law). Instead our expectations on the number of historical prosecution needs to be tempered with the reality that only a few cases are likely to end in a conviction due to the degradation of evidence, even if the Historical Investigation Unit is set up.

Each week we continue to be confronted with the past in drips. What does it say about us as a society if we continue to leave the burden of dealing with the past with victims and survivors? Whether it is pursuing justice and truth for past killings and serious injuries, delays in acknowledging the past, or delivering a pension to those seriously injured, how much long do these victims have to wait? As the talks on dealing with the past and outstanding issues are pushed back to the end of June, we need to ensure that the past is dealt with and the burden of finding truth and acknowledgment is placed on sufficiently funded and organised institutions to comprehensively deal with the past.

Period28 Apr 2017