The front line in the Northern Ireland conflict has moved from the back streets of Belfast. The weapons are no longer ArmaLite rifles and car bombs; the warriors are no longer soldiers and hooded paramilitaries. In 2014, history itself is the new front line, and the battlefields are TV studios, newspapers, social media and the courts. The warriors are now politicians whose words are as full of hate as the bullets they have replaced. The body count may be lower, but mistrust and blame are not being replaced with hope and friendship.
In April 1998, when the Good Friday peace accord was signed, dealing with the conflict’s legacy was seen as too divisive. But that unfinished business has poisoned community relations, and confronting it can no longer be postponed.
The arrest on Wednesday of Gerry Adams, leader of the pro-Irish unity party Sinn Fein (formerly described as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army), is the latest skirmish in this new war. The arrest comes after some of Mr. Adams’s former comrades accused him of direct involvement in the abduction, murder and burial of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, 42 years ago. Their testimony to an archive at Boston College was supposedly confidential.
After the Police Service of Northern Ireland gained access through legal action in American courts, Mr. Adams was arrested. Sinn Fein has accused the police of political manipulation three weeks before critical local and European elections south of the border in Ireland, where Mr. Adams’s party was, according to all the polls, poised to perform well. Back in the North, the leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, has insisted that it would have been political had the police not arrested Mr. Adams.
Whatever the outcome of Mr. Adams’s case, the arrest of an architect of the peace process, and the praise and scorn it has been met with, demonstrate the huge gulf that remains in Northern Ireland, 20 years after the I.R.A. cease-fire.
Hundreds of families, like Ms. McConville’s, are still seeking to find out why their loved ones were killed, and who was responsible. Higher profile campaigns, waged by families willing and able to express themselves publicly, have garnered media and political support. The pain of many others remains unheard.
Moreover, groups representing pro-British unionist families often insist that only those they define as “innocent” merit new investigations, while pro-nationalist groups say any bereaved family has an equal right to the truth.
They all share one problem. There is no consistent, fair or independent process to which they can turn. Instead they are forced to use ad hoc legal avenues — civil litigation, demands for new government inquests, complaints to the police ombudsman against retired officers or passionate appeals for public inquiries.
London, meanwhile, has remained aloof. If the truth is ever told, it’s certain to include some unpleasant facts about Britain’s own covert role in dozens of killings in collusion with loyalist groups.
Just this week, the British government told a group of families from Ballymurphy that the “balance of public interest” did not favor investigating the actions of the British soldiers responsible for 11 deaths in August 1971. On the same day, in what seemed like a crude attempt to appear evenhanded, the British government told the families of 12 people killed by the I.R.A. in February 1978 that there would be no review of the case as it would not “reveal new evidence.”
This is the antithesis of the reconciliation process Northern Ireland needs. Families who might eventually be able to understand their shared experiences of grief are instead being publicly pitted against one another. Some want prosecutions of those who killed their relatives. Others want British government apologies. Others simply want to be given whatever details can still be found.
The uncomfortable truth is that what passes for peace in Northern Ireland has made little, or no, difference to the sectarian hostilities between pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics.
Less than six months ago, the dangerous logjam appeared about to break when two Americans invited by Northern Ireland’s leaders — Richard N. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard — proposed addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past by an independent Historical Investigations Unit, which might lead to prosecutions if sufficient new evidence was found.
In parallel, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval would be set up, allowing families to ask, privately, for information while offering limited immunity to those volunteering details.
The idea was to encourage those involved in the conflict, on all sides, to take responsibility for their actions and express remorse, while investigations would assess broader issues such as British collusion with armed loyalists and the Irish government’s role in arming the I.R.A.
The two main pro-British unionist parties, however, have rejected these proposals, claiming that too much emphasis has been put on the state’s wrongdoings and not enough on paramilitary guilt.
Meanwhile, witnesses, perpetrators, the mothers and fathers of the dead are all getting older and dying. The truth, little by little, is disappearing.
If their concern for victims’ families is more than mere lip service, both the British and Irish governments must support an independent commission and historical investigations unit.
Anne Cadwallader, a case worker with the Pat Finucane Center for Human Rights and Social Change, is the author of Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland.