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Tom Clonan: Truth of what happened in Troubles can't be allowed die with major figures like McGuinness

The untimely death of the Sinn Féin politician has brought Ireland’s faltering peace process into sharp focus, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE UNTIMELY DEATH of Martin McGuinness has brought Ireland’s faltering peace process into sharp focus. It has also revealed a yawning gap between the lived experience of ordinary Irish and British citizens and the rhetoric employed across a spectrum of politicians, commentators and historians as they reflect on the legacy of the Troubles.

In London and Dublin, among certain establishment politicians, journalists and academics, there is an accepted narrative that is used to describe what is euphemistically referred to as ‘the Troubles’. In recent days, a series of these luminaries and commentators have tended to present Martin McGuinness as a man with two separate identities.

Correctly, they laud his role as peacemaker and revile his actions as a leading member of the Provisional IRA. However, they speak of him as though he were a man who lived two separate and indivisible lives – as gunman and politician. Few establishment commentators seem able, or willing, to reconcile the equally integral and intertwined aspects of the life journey of Martin McGuinness – namely brutal injustice, violence and redemption. Nor do they seem able, or willing, to reconcile the role of successive Irish governments and elements of our security forces with the conflict on this island.

To do so requires intellectual integrity and moral courage. The victims of the violence of the Troubles in both Ireland and Britain are forthright in their assessment of the legacy of the life and death of Martin Mc Guinness. Julie Hambleton who lost her sister Maxine in the IRA Birmingham pub bombings of November 1974 simply stated that ‘with him, (McGuinness) the truth has died and that’s the problem’. Stephen Gault – whose father Samuel was killed in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987 – stated that ‘Martin McGuinness has taken to the grave the truth and the answers that we need to be able to move forward’.

Martin McGuinness Source: PA Archive/PA Images

A common theme among the victims of the violence of the Troubles – from all communities and all parties to the conflict – is a quest for the truth about the tens of thousands of those who died, ‘disappeared’ or are living with the life-long consequences of catastrophic injuries.

In essence, the ordinary people who lived through the conflict in Britain and Ireland are seeking the whole truth, warts and all, about the origins and perpetrators of sectarian and state violence on these islands in order to achieve a true and meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace. Ironically perhaps, one of McGuinness’ closest associates, Gerry Adams has been calling for an independent international truth commission for the Troubles for some time.

In 1947, just twenty years or so after the bitter aftermath of the War of Independence and Civil War in Ireland, the Irish government established the Bureau of Military History to set about collecting and collating an oral history of the 1916 Rising. In March 2003, approximately 1773 such witness statements were published by Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks. The statements, given by participants to the conflict give a fascinating and often frank and unsentimental insight into the conflict fought by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Such an archive is essential to our understanding of the conflict and subsequent uneasy peace on this island in the last century. In 2017, twenty years or so after the Good Friday Agreement, it is high time we conducted an updated Truth and Reconciliation exercise for the next, and critical phase of the peace process.

The death of Martin McGuinness at the age of 66 shows us clearly that time is rapidly running out for such an exercise to be successfully completed here. Of particular concern to this writer is the profound lack of understanding and information that we have as a nation of the role of the government and security forces of the Republic of Ireland in the Troubles. Britain and its security forces and agencies are notoriously secretive. However, despite this, the so-called 30 year rule of de-classification of British archive material has yielded a great deal of information about the activities of the British security forces, intelligence agencies and proxy forces – including loyalist paramilitaries- during the Troubles. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland, there is an emerging precedent and tradition among both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries to write and publish their experiences of the conflict in books, autobiographies, memoir, plays and even screenplays.

Wicklow/Bodies-IRA-excavation Gardaí search for one of 'the disappeared' in Co Wicklow. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

By contrast however, in the Republic of Ireland, there is almost no information released or published into the public domain about the activities of successive Irish governments or an Garda Siochana – the primary intelligence agency of the state – or the Defence Forces during the period of the Troubles. As a consequence, most Irish citizens do not understand the role that the Irish government and our security forces played in the dirty war that was the Troubles. We get some hints as to the nature of that involvement from reports such as the Smithwick Tribunal into Garda/PIRA collusion into the execution of senior RUC Officers, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in Jonesborough in March 1989.

Collusion between the Irish security forces and British intelligence agencies – with particular reference to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings are also alluded to in the Barron Report of 2003. Thirty four innocent civilians were murdered in these attacks – the largest single atrocity during the Troubles. The relatives of the victims of these attacks, and the Irish people deserve to know the full truth about these attacks. It would be helpful if former Directors of Intelligence of the Irish Defence Forces were asked to cooperate fully with any further enquiry or investigation into the manner in which these attacks were mounted.

The Irish public have quite understandably recoiled in disbelief and disgust at the systematic and systemic abuse of women and children by religious orders and others in Ireland’s recent past. In the same way, many Irish citizens may well be initially reluctant to believe that Irish politicians and senior members of an Garda Siochana and the Defence Forces colluded with all sides to the conflict on this island and that senior figures here tolerated, facilitated and covered up acts of political and sectarian violence throughout that period. To recognise this reality – however belatedly – will require a high degree of intellectual integrity and great moral courage on the part of our establishment politicians, journalists and academics as it runs contrary to the currently accepted narrative on the conflict.

All of the heavyweights of the initial phase of the Peace Process – from the Clintons to Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern – will be quoted and perhaps pictured at the funeral of Martin McGuinness in the coming hours. In the aftermath however and in the aftermath of Brexit and increased talk of the prospect of a ‘United Ireland’ – against the backdrop of a collapsed Northern Ireland Executive – we are moving rapidly to the next, critical phase of the Peace Process. A suitable tribute to Martin McGuinness and all of the victims of the Troubles – from all communities – would be an independent, international truth and reconciliation commission.

In that manner, to paraphrase the victims of violence, the truth will not have died with Martin McGuinness.

Read: “Hopefully they’ll listen this time.” – Son of Monaghan bomb victim remembers the tragedy >

Related: Some British newspapers had a different perspective on the death of Martin McGuinness >

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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