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Thoughts on Northern Ireland’s Unanswered Past
by Brian Rowan
2015 Colourpoint £9.99
Link to Colourpoint site: http://www.colourpointbooks.co.uk/more_details.php?id=1878 to read more and, of course, to buy.
“There is no one truth, narrative or answer. There never will be, and this is something that needs to be understood and accepted by us all.”
Brian Rowan lets us know from the outset that his excellent book does not conclude with a miraculous resolution to Northern Ireland’s troubled past and unsettled present. So, what’s the point of the book if it is not a prescription to cure the pain? Why do I call it excellent if it does not give us the magic answer?
Well, the book encapsulates the complexities, contradictions and confusions of Northern Ireland’s recent past (the book’s core span is from 1993 to the present) in a way that I don’t think anyone has attempted before. Here we read about the famous and the infamous people, the ordinary and the extraordinary, those who feel able to forgive and those who can never forget. We encounter the people who justify atrocities for their own agendas and those who will never understand why anyone can trigger a bomb and fire a gun to kill, maim and destroy for any reason. We read about those people who want a line drawn under the past and a guarantee of absolution and those who want to see justice done regardless of the passing years.
But through it all, there are stories of unusual things happening, not least one encounter that would have been thought impossible after the bombing by the IRA in 1993 of a fishmonger’s shop on the Shankill Road. Alan McBride’s wife was killed in the explosion. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams carried the coffin at the bomber’s funeral. Yet the two men met some years later, shook hands and had a long conversation, attracting congratulations and criticism along the way. Although this particular example happened in 2009, it is not out of the question to assume that in the early 1990s similar, perhaps, lower key meetings, handshakes, reconciliations, etc happened and can be considered as small steps that eventually led to the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the beginnings of a path to peace. It was a time to consider trusting people and organizations that had been involved in or close to violence and also a time of political confusion, seemingly endless talks about talks and debates over wording and terminology. It was a time to forge ahead or to dig in heels. Either way, it was a long road ahead and it still is.
An IRA ceasefire followed by a loyalist ceasefire did not stop the killing. But, in tandem with reprisals and scaremongering, there were more than a few efforts to start conversations out in the open and in secret. These were still dangerous, sensitive and unpredictable days. The book carries on with an impressive methodical analysis bolstered by individual memories and perspectives on how the police behaved, what prisoners thought, whether or not weapons decommissioning would actually happen, whether paramilitary high commanders could guarantee compliance in their lower ranks and how to deal with the dreadful mystery of “the disappeared’. There is also the continuing challenge of how to define the word “victim”.
The thorny issue of drawing a line under the past and creating a mechanism to allow participants in “the struggle” to give an honest account of events continues to this day. Anyone brave enough to speak the truth is liable, under current legislation, to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment. If there is no freedom to speak, the past will continue to occupy its own fog. This is the major stumbling block in the hope of ever finding out the whole truth. Of course, as time marches on, a number of the key figures in the war, conflict, struggle or whatever you want to call it, are dead, buried along with their stories, leaving huge gaps in the complex historical jigsaw.
Any meaningful peace from a peace process should include peace of mind as far as that is humanly possible. Oh how easy it is to type such words. Changing hearts and minds, now that’s a long, tough haul. “The past is still with us and still waiting for some process, some creative thinking and some courage; some leadership and some new way,” writes Brian Rowan.
“Unfinished Peace” is a monumental work that has pulled together many stories and many perspectives from politicians, police, academics, religious leaders, counsellors, journalists, relatives as well as ‘policy’ statements from that alphabet soup concoction IRA, UDA, UFF, UVF et al.
It is a brave book because it tries to dig deep into the lives, history and emotions of many people involved in and affected by the horrors of the past. It is a book to be studied, a book to learn from and a book, hopefully, to help creative thinking to get Northern Ireland closer to the peace it wants and deserves. There is no future in the past but the next generations have opportunities to de-clutter, out with the old and in with the new as we say at this time of year. Unfinished peace can still be finished. If we give up on that ambition, what’s the point? Brian Rowan has done a great deal here to encourage everyone to face facts and keep bouncing back off the ropes.
Brian Rowan’s daughter Elle took most of the photographs in the book. They are outstanding.