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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Elle Rowan Peter Sheridan

Brian Rowan The head of the new Troubles legacy body will have a mountain to climb

The former BBC correspondent looks at the UK’s legacy bill and meets ex-police commander Peter Sheridan of the new Commission for Investigations.

The man tasked with leading investigations in a new Troubles legacy body in Northern Ireland is former police officer Peter Sheridan. As a result of the UK Government’s controversial legacy bill, which became law this week, he has been appointed to the newly formed Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. Sheridan has acknowledged that because of his past work with the RUC, his appointment to the body will not be welcomed in some quarters. Here, former BBC correspondent Brian Rowan speaks with Sheridan about his appointment and gives his own take on where the North now stands…

I TWEETED LAST week that we are at war with the Past – typed those words as the former senior police officer Peter Sheridan was handed what I consider to be the poisoned chalice of Commissioner for Investigations in a place that has not been able to put its conflict years to rest.

And, for days now, I have been wrestling with a question: Why, with all his involvement with the IRA and its violence, was the late Martin McGuinness so readily accepted as a peacemaker? And why then, have some been so quick to reject Sheridan without even a chance to prove himself?

It is as if his 15 years of reconciliation work since leaving the PSNI in 2008 count for nothing, including his part in helping to arrange that historic first handshake between McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth in 2012.

WhatsApp Image 2023-09-19 at 07.41.42 Peter Sheridan (left, by Elle Rowan). File picture of Martin McGuinness, Brian Rowan and William Smith who was a Loyalist activist. Credit: MT Hurson

I know the important contributions that both McGuinness and Sheridan have made to this process. But, after days of thinking, I still don’t know why one got a chance and the other didn’t.

A broken North

There is a brokenness to the North right now; including within its politics and its policing – and, these many years after the ceasefires and the peace agreement, the Past once more shouts to be heard.

We hear it in the loud rejection of the UK Government’s legacy approach (what some have called its bill of shame), and as appointments are made to a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (the ICRIR).

Sheridan has been caught in the crossfire and in the cross words – an easy target in the anger of now. For some, it boils down to this: How can a former cop investigate the cops?

He has been around long enough, to know what to expect: “I gave it a lot of thought,” he said – “because I knew for some people, who don’t know me, it would be easy to come to a conclusion and that’s understandable, but I also know it’s a misperception of who I am.”

He still thinks this new commission (the ICRIR) has a chance, that the making of it “will be critical”, and he pointed me towards Seamus Heaney’s poem Scaffolding, and used it in a different context – to speak about the challenge of establishing and building trust in the many relationships that will be needed to make this work.

I am not so sure that such scaffolding exists.

For me, these latest rows about the Past are a confirmation that we cannot do this on our own. That our Past needs the help of an international process, not an internal one and certainly not something that is the design of the UK Government (one of the players in the conflict years).

It will fail because there is not the trust for it to work.

The UK Government must know that.

The dirty wars

Those in Westminster surely have heard the reactions to their legislation and the argument that they are protecting their veterans and hiding the so-called ‘dirty war’.

What is not heard so loudly is that the IRA also wants to bury its dirty war – those parts of it that it cannot justify, not even to itself; the disappeared bodies, the human bombs, the civilian dead, described so often as “mistakes” and referenced in statements of “sincerest apologies”.

There were too many such deaths to be “mistakes”. The truth is they were a cold calculation of collateral damage. Do we really believe that the IRA is readying itself to speak that truth, or that the loyalists will line up to tell the stories of the ‘butcher’ gangs’ and the many other horrors?

A long time ago, I said we needed to stop lying about the truth and to be more honest about what is possible.

Will the IRA come to a truth process? The loyalists? MI5? The Special Branch?
The Military? Governments? The many others with questions to answer?

There has been no serious conversation about any of that.

“We will have to be utterly clear with those who give us the runaround,” Sheridan said. “Those people will have to be called out.”

Talking in circles

Up to now, the legacy debate has discussed and avoided the Past. It has gone around in circles.

Go back to the beginning; 2007 and the establishment of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.

They reported in 2009, and every consultation and negotiation since then has been about Commissions for this and that – for reconciliation, for investigations, for information recovery.

We are building houses that might never be sold; building them without knowing the market, without having a clue about what to expect from any of the sides.

Who will buy into a legacy process, and who won’t?

The reason, or excuse, for those who refuse to cooperate, will be the shaping of this process, the solo run of the UK Government, the player making the rules, and the amnesty for its veterans.

There have been other amnesties, of course, not labelled as such.

‘The disappeared’

In March 1999, the IRA read its statement and briefing to me on the bodies that had been disappeared by that organisation; a statement only released when it knew that it was safe to do so; that the information it would provide would not lead to prosecutions.

Arms decommissioning happened without forensic testing. Prisoners were released early.

Yet, today, we speak of amnesty as if it’s a dirty word.

Peace is not clean, and it is not fair – not to those who have been hurt the most.

I have long argued for amnesty; that you cannot have a peace process that releases prisoners and, then, a Past process that creates prisoners. I believe an international team should write the report on the conflict years.

I believe we need a place of remembering that should be designed from outside of politics. That there should be information reports to families.

That all the help they need should be available, and that any process should have a story-telling element. Everyone should be heard.


This UK Government has chosen a different way and is not going to slow down.

So, can a Commission headed by Sir Declan Morgan and including Peter Sheridan make this work? I don’t think they can. Not without international help, and not until there has been some rethink of this process.

That may come with a Labour Government if a General Election delivers one.

Can the Past wait that long?

Can the scaffolding hold the process up until then?

Two more questions to add to our legacy years and to the wars of our Past and Present.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press. 


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