Thursday, 10 August 2017

A Living Legacy

I recently read the views of the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton on the delay in dealing with the legacy of the past due to the latest political stalemate at Stormont.  And then today concerns were raised by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory. In his comments Mr Hamilton referred to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. This agreement contained several proposed mechanisms to deal with the past including the Historical Investigations Unit which was the proposed investigatory body and unlike the other proposals outlined was actually a requirement under European Law. 

Under the Stormont House Agreement, the Historical Investigations Unit was expected to have a life span of five years to investigate troubles related deaths. Ideally this would have been a mechanism with no time limit, free from state interference and with international oversight where possible. However, the Historical Investigations Unit was set to include those who served in policing and security roles in the North during the troubles. Furthermore, the British Secretary of State was to have the power to veto information disclosure as well as the authority to remove the HIU at his/her discretion.  Additionally, the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers were to hold the power to hire and retire the chosen HIU director. Independent?

The other proposed mechanisms included the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Oral History Archive and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) which was later removed despite being an integral element of the proposals. The IRG proved quite contentious when it was rumoured to be the mop which would clean up the remaining issues still outstanding after a five-year period through what were to be known as ‘statements of acknowledgement’ although what this meant remains a mystery. Subsequently, the public also learned of plans to limit troubles related inquests to five years and to assist British troops and Security Personnel of a certain age with evading prosecution for their respective crimes. Now if that’s not weighted in the State’s favour I don’t know what is!

There is no disputing the need to deal with the past but unless things change dramatically from the last batch of proposals then we can expect a process which is not independent, is time limited, is one-sided and will only serve the interests of the state. A state which is overly keen to revise and sanitise their role here as one of peacekeepers between sectarian factions rather than an antagonistic and adversarial one.

A contentious element of dealing with the legacy of the troubles is how the respective parties remember their dead. The British would argue that their security forces were upholding law here in line with their ‘peacekeeper’ narrative, yet their legacy in the North speaks for itself, and examination of the facts easily paints a different more accurate picture.  This including their record of collusion with loyalist death squads, the use of internment (then and now), their shoot to kill policy, their indiscriminate brutalisation of communities, their brutalisation of prisoners and the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday Massacres, war crimes perpetrated by these ‘peacekeepers’. 

A current controversy in my home city is over a display in the Museum of Free Derry (MOFD), more commonly known as the Bloody Sunday Museum. Anyone who knows me will know that I am meticulous when it comes to recording things accurately and for that reason I would generally take a stance that museums present their exhibits as such and in a neutral fashion. In this case it is how the MOFD presents a record of the names of all those killed during the Free Derry period that has caused the problems as the names of British security force personnel are listed alongside civilians and republican volunteers who lost their lives during the Free Derry period.

I spoke yesterday with local woman Marie Gallagher about this display which is now a prominent feature within the recently revamped museum. Marie is the sister of the late Jim Gallagher who was shot on a bus at the junction of the of the Fort George army barracks on the Strand road in Derry six days after his release from prison in 1976. In this case the soldier responsible later served a prison sentence in of 2 ½ years in Layhill open prison after being convicted of manslaughter. Despite having some justice after Jim’s murder Marie’s son Brian Boyle organised a recent protest at the museum in solidarity with victims who have not yet received justice.

I am aware that a museum will strive to tell the whole story of the period they represent. However, there is a fine line between historical accuracy and revisionism. The MOFD may argue that the display in question accurately reflects all those who lost their lives during the period known as Free Derry but can they state categorically that none of the state forces listed were involved in the brutalisation and murder of innocent civilians anywhere in the North? This is a valid question when you consider the many still seeking justice for crimes committed by the state here, including those murdered on Bloody Sunday some of whom were gunned down at what is now the front entrance of the MOFD.

As we consider this we must keep in mind that many issues from the Free Derry period are not just a snapshot of the past resigned to being a museum exhibit, these issues remain current and for some are as raw today as they were four and a half decades ago.
Furthermore, placing state forces in the same display as people from the community who lost their lives during that period would seem to be an attempt to give the impression of a level playing field. There has not, will not and will never be a level playing field when it comes to the British state protecting itself and the actions of its agents.  As such the museum should not directly or indirectly support this fallacy under the guise of historical or factual accuracy. Particularly a museum claiming to be about ‘our future together as much as it is about the past’.

In their justification of this display the MOFD released the following in a statement: We believe that it is important that we list all of those killed in this period, not only because it is historically accurate but also because, unlike others who would align themselves with the DUP, TUV and British government, we do not believe in any sort of hierarchy of victims.
Whether Museum Staff or the Bloody Sunday Trust choose to believe in a hierarchy of victims or not there is a hierarchy and those at the top of the pile are state agents who stand to be protected through legislation, through British Courts and when all else fails you can be sure the age-old cloak of secrecy known as the national security card will be played.

Whilst I do not subscribe to many of the outlandish conspiracy theories I have read on this issue there does seem to be a degree of normalisation at play here. This was also clear from plans discussed in 2013 to include a memorial garden in the museum. A memorial garden which would include British soldiers, something confirmed by the Museum Manager at a meeting held in the Bogside on July 25th, 2015. Despite denials following this disclosure references to this plan were found in documents obtained under Freedom of Information Legislation.

As a ‘museum of the people’ I would urge the Bloody Sunday Trust to find a solution suitable to all. As plans are underway at Whitehall to whitewash the past through a state protected, time-limited and tokenistic process, victims now more than ever need to be united on issues that will not simply require cool heads and compromise, there needs to be an understanding that there should be more that unites victims of state violence than divides them, unless of course revisionism and the rewriting of history are considered acceptable.

*Note to supporters of normalisation, you cannot normalise an abnormal situation.

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