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The past cannot be an obstacle to the future

Belfast PeacewallNovember 8 was the anniversary of the 1987 Enniskillen bomb attack in which 11 people were killed in an IRA bomb attack. Just before I left Belfast to travel to the USA I was interviewed for a documentary on the Ballymurphy Massacre in August 1971 in which 11 people were killed by the British Parachute Regiment.

Last week also saw the broadcasting of the Disappeared and details emerged of British Army tapes which may have filmed the sectarian killing by the UVF of 76 year old Roseanne Mallon in county Tyrone in May 1994. The inquest into Roseanne Mallon’s death is one of 29 which have been deliberately delayed for decades.

There were also the anniversaries of the Shankill Bomb and the Greysteel Massacre and other killings. The Pat Finucane Centre’s case worker Anne Cadwallader published her book, ‘Lethal Allies: British State Collusion in Ireland’ which details the involvement of British state forces operating in collusion in the murder of approximately 120 citizens in the 1970s. And there are many more families who have lost loved ones in other violent actions seeking truth.

The pain, the suffering and the tragedies from decades of conflict are, for many, as real today as they were, when they first occurred. Each occasion of anniversary evokes painful memories. And each such occasion is a reminder of the need to address the past as part of the work of building a peaceful future.

Almost 4000 people died and countless others were injured in a war that was vicious and brutal.

Over the years I have attended many wakes and funerals of family members, friends and neighbours. I have met many victims, including victims of the IRA, and among them the families of those secretly buried by that organisation. Their story is one of the great tragedies of the conflict. What happened was wrong and unjustifiable. The IRA acknowledged this and apologised.

The grief of all of the victims of the conflict must be respected and acknowledged and all of us in political leadership have a responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that no future generation suffers the pain of war.

Regrettably, there are some in the political system and in sections of the media who see the issue of the past as an opportunity to attack Sinn Féin or more particularly me. An example of this occurred in the Dáil last Tuesday. A Fianna Fail TD Brendan Smith, speaking on the issue of those secretly buried by the IRA, that:

The IRA still refuse to accept responsibility for the murders and legitimate questions are not answered by Gerry Adams and others.”

None of this is true. The Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin knows this. He was a senior member of the government which established the Commission for the Location of Victims Remains at my request.

As a republican leader I have never shirked my responsibility on this issue. It was following representations by me that the IRA established a special unit in the autumn of 1997 to ascertain the whereabouts of the graves of a number of people executed and buried by it in the 1970’s. I have met the families of those affected by this. I have worked with the Commission and I will continue to do so. It has done tremendous work.

I participated in the programme to raise awareness and assist the search for the remaining bodies. That has been my focus for many years and I intend to honour the commitment I gave to the families to continue with my efforts.

The special forensics team, working to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, was established as a result of a proposal from Father Alec Reid and myself.

The forensic science consultant Geoff Knupfer, who leads the forensic team for the Commission, acknowledged several years ago the co-operation they received from the IRA. He said:

In a spirit of co-operation and reconciliation they [the IRA] are trying to help in every way they can. I am absolutely convinced that they are doing everything they can to assist. The support we have had from them has been absolutely 100 per cent from day one.”

As a result of the work of the last 12 years nine bodies have been recovered and the sites of four of the six remaining bodies have been identified. The failure thus far to find the remaining bodies is not due to any lack of resolve or cooperation by me or other republicans.

Ranting about me is easy for those who rely on gossip, smear, their own imagination and the accusations of political enemies, but it will not help the families. Nor will resolving this injustice and recovering the bodies be assisted by political point scoring, felon setting or snide ill-informed newspaper articles. What is needed is information.

I therefore appeal again for anyone with any information, including anyone who was previously in touch with the Commission to contact them again on the basis of absolute confidentiality, in order to assist the Commission in reassessing the information available to it.

Any information passed to the Commission cannot be used in a court of law or transmitted to any other agency and those passing on this information have absolute immunity in relation to this information.

Unfortunately the issue of the past, and of truth and reconciliation has not made the progress it should have since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved.

Sinn Féin has proposed an independent international based process to deal with the past including all these issues. The fact is that none of the participants to the conflict can be responsible for creating such a process. However, thus far the British government refuses to agree on any mechanism that can deal with this issue and the Irish government and others have made no real effort to establish a viable truth recovery process. This is not acceptable.

The past cannot be an obstacle to dealing with the present or a pretext for refusing to build a new future of equality, fairness and prosperity for everyone. And while republicans recognise the complexity and difficulties which confront us all in dealing with this issue we are in no way daunted by it. Nor should anyone be.

It is necessary that in coming to the issue of truth and reconciliation that we all recognise that there are many different narratives to this story. We live in a divided and largely segregated society with different, and, in some instances, contradictory and opposite political allegiances. Little wonder that there are different perspectives on the causes of the conflict, what happened and who was responsible.

The role and actions of all combatant organisations must be fully considered, including government, state agencies and the legal and judicial system.

And paramount in all of this must be the views of the victims and survivors. Their voices must be heard and respected, not simply the loudest voices, not simply those on any particular side or those on no side. All victims must be treated on an equal basis. The views of the many thousand victims and survivors who have remained silent must also be heard.

So despite the personalised attacks on me, Sinn Fein will not be deflected from campaigning for a truth and reconciliation process that can bring closure for families bereaved by the cruelty of war.

This article first appeared at Léargas

Image: Belfast Peacewall by a11sus at Flikr

One Comment

  1. swatantra says:

    Gerry Adams makes an excellent case for truth and reconciliation in NI, and the matter be put in the hands of an international body to oversee the process. I believe him when he says Sinn Fein are doing all they can to recover the bodies.

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