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Sunday 28 May 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images Two women walk past mural depicting victims of the troubles in west Belfast.
Column To move on from the Troubles we have to face the past with compassion
Behind each death of the Troubles are real, grieving people – many of whom have been waiting for the truth for far too long, writes David McCann.

FOLLOWING THE HORRIFIC murder of Detective Adrian Donohue, I watched with astonishment as Gerry Adams rose to his feet in the Dáil and offered an apology on behalf of his party for the murder of Detective Jerry McCabe in 1996. The apology has either been dismissed as a cynical electoral ploy by Sinn Fein or has been welcomed as a necessary part of the process of healing the wounds of the Troubles. That 15 years after the Troubles ended there is still such anger out there illustrates how raw the wounds of the conflict still are. This got me thinking – how well have we really done in dealing with the legacy of the Troubles?

This issue has dogged politics in Northern Ireland for well over a decade and it seems to me that actually very few people have any idea as to how we can actually deal with this issue. So, let’s start off with some facts about the Troubles. Of the 3,529 deaths, roughly 2,000 were killed by republican paramilitaries, 1,000 by loyalist paramilitaries, 360 by the British/Northern Irish security forces and five by the Irish security forces.

Why is it important to regurgitate figures that we hear all so often? Because if we are ever to truly move on we need to remember that each of these numbers represent not just a person killed but a family left behind to deal with such an immense tragedy.

Different views on what caused the Troubles

So why have we been so poor in actually dealing with the legacy of the Troubles? Well, part of the problem is the way in which different sections of the community in Northern Ireland view the conflict. For Sinn Fein, it was a war to achieve the abolition of what they perceived a sectarian state and the attainment of Irish reunification. For Unionists, it was a brutal act of terrorism perpetrated against innocent people for thirty years. Herein lies the problem: the two largest parties in government in Northern Ireland cannot agree on a way forward.

Compounding this problem of competing narratives is the issue of public inquiries. Over the last decade we have seen numerous inquiries into the misdeeds of the British state and we have one ongoing in Dublin over possible collusion between Gardai and the PIRA. While these inquiries have been for many families a necessary component in finding out the truth over events such as Bloody Sunday, they have been generally been derided by Unionists for their cost and length.

Most killing was perpetrated by paramilitaries

But the real problem with inquiries is that they have an almost exclusive focus on the wrongdoings of state actors yet in the case of Northern Ireland the overwhelming amount of killings were done by paramilitary organisations. No person or politician can realistically expect that demanding endless inquires from the British government to heal the wounds of the past. Within the nationalist community, Sinn Fein has led this charge of holding regular audits into British misdeeds. Yet when it comes to their own ranks they seem totally uninterested in facing up to the actions of the Provisional IRA which on their own were responsible for nearly half of the total deaths of the Troubles. If the party wants to be taken seriously on this issue then they need to stop pointing fingers at former foes and look to themselves.

Then there is Unionism, we have today Unionist politicians that are still reluctant to acknowledge discrimination against Catholics throughout the first 50 years of the Northern Ireland state. Aside from David Trimble’s speech in 1998 recognising that the North was ‘a cold house for Catholics’ there has been little reflection within Unionism on this period.  Unionism needs to depart from its hitherto position of the Stormont era as the golden age of good government and accept that in reality it was in many ways a missed opportunity to bring Catholics into the Unionist fold.

Behind each death is a grieving family

The simple reality is that Northern Ireland has no future that is not based on tolerance and mutual respect. The process of truth and reconciliation is in this regard is a necessity if we are ever going to see an end to sectarianism. I do not argue that I have all the answers in how to achieve this goal but I do know that if any progress is to be made then both sides need to address wrongdoings that were committed across the board.

The idea that people will be truthful now may be idealistic but behind each of those 3,529 deaths there are real people, many of whom have been waiting for the truth for far too long and deserve more than having their loved ones consigned to a chapter in a history book.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for click here.

Read: Adams apologises to family of Jerry McCabe and others killed by republicans>

Column: The Troubles may have quietened, but the trauma lives on>

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