couple of weeks ago, I attended an excellent one-day
conference, Telling the Truth in Northern Ireland,
at Trinity College Dublin, organised by Nigel Biggar,
professor of theology at Trinity's School of Religions
with representatives from victims' groups and a
sprinkling of academics, significant others taking
part were PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, NI
Policing Board chairman Sir Desmond Rea and NI Community
Relations Council chief executive Duncan Morrow.
met to discuss whether there should be some kind
of "truth process" in Northern Ireland;
if so, what form it might take; and, crucially,
the many problems such a process would face.
of us who have promoted the idea of a truth process
should be under no illusions about the difficulties
inherent in such an undertaking or, in particular,
the damage that could be done if it wasn't handled
was certainly left with no illusions after the conference.
was even more aware than before of just how difficult,
if not downright impossible, it will be to overcome
some of those obstacles.
the most immediate problem facing a truth process
would be finding someone to head a truth commission
that would be both capable of doing the job and
acceptable to all sides.
those criteria would be no mean task in itself.
considering that we already have a whole assortment
of mini-processes all running in tandem, with none
of them showing any signs of reaching a destination,
it seems obvious that a truth process would need
to be strictly time-framed if it wasn't to become
yet another neverending, will-sapping exercise in
have to consider, too, what incentive there could
possibly be for people such as politicians, clergy
or business leaders to volunteer information to
a truth commission regarding their own role in the
anything, they would have a strong vested interest
in not co-operating.
it desirable (or even feasible), then, that a truth
commission should have powers to investigate, seize
documents and summon people to account for themselves
if there seems to be sufficient evidence that they
have a case to answer? And, in those circumstances,
what safeguards would there be for high-profile
individuals who would forever run the risk of being
protect against that, should media access be strictly
limited with most sittings held in private? What
impact would such restrictions have on public confidence
in the process and, in any event, would it be realistic
to expect there wouldn't be a continuous leaking
of information from the proceedings? Unless properly
designed and managed, of course, a truth process
would always be open to abuse by those intent on
using it to rewrite history to their own advantage.
seeking to inflate their particular "truth"
at the expense of others' versions would try to
use a truth process as a platform from which to
continue the conflict by other means.
hurt would then be heaped on already grieving relatives
forced to watch from the sidelines as their bereavement
is used to bolster the position of one side or another
in a public squabble between opposing factions.
who support the idea of a truth process genuinely
believe it will help ease the suffering of victims
and, in doing that, aid reconciliation between the
communities in Northern Ireland.
in that respect, they would argue that the lack
of a truth process is holding up development of
the peace process.
it is equally conceivable that a truth process might
actually damage the peace process and hinder reconciliation
by raking over the past and reopening old wounds.
the very least, differing interpretations of events
will inevitably generate a degree of friction.
believe it will help bring to account, at least
in some form, many of those responsible for violent
others feel society has a right to know fully all
that took place and that it is important the full
truth is known, if for no other reason than to provide
a proper historical record.
most people, it is a combination of some or all
of the above.
there are those who lend their support for other,
quite different reasons, such as seeking to have
their own prejudices reinforced and their subsequent
apportioning of blame vindicated.
that is the very last thing a truth process should
be about and, indeed, should be jealously protected
people on all sides are willing to face up to the
pain of objective truth and, further, have a clear
and realistic idea of the limits to what can reasonably
be achieved, then a truth process should, at least
at this juncture, be a non-runner. Unless the circumstances
are right, there would be a real risk of it further
entrenching divisions or, at best, raising public
expectations and then dashing them again.
the ultimate question must be: are the people of
Northern Ireland ready to face the truth, the whole
truth and nothing but the truth?