When Alastair Campbell issues a warning people should sit up and take notice, even today.
You do get this sense across the spectrum that it is not a priority. They have got to be careful about that. “[John] Major made it a priority, Blair made it an absolute priority. He was like a dog with a bone. I do get a sense that it is not on the current government’s radar.
British policy on Northern Ireland is to stay as aloof as conceivably possible and leave the past, present and future to a few platitudes and “devolution”. The Northern Ireland, Scotland and Welsh Offices exist today only because of Scotland, where to dispense with a separate secretary of state would be to send the wrong signals over independence. Yet in an ideal world, abolishing the NIO makes perfect sense, amalgamating it with the others into something like a “department of the Nations.” You can almost hear Theresa Villiers balancing on a very thin brief every day she speaks. She must ask herself every time she drops in: “What am I doing here?
So on the face of it the complaint of Westminster’s inattention seems misplaced. It has the feel of a spoilt child about it, missing the thrill of walking the line along Downing St and lounging in the comfort of those No 10 sofas. What have we got to complain about? The block grant is as secure as anything financial is these days even if the rattle of the begging bowl no longer meets with quite the same response.. The G8 conference was an imaginative gesture. But it’s taking far too long our politics to mature. Westminster should review its belief that giving responsibility is the best way to help novices in government to grow up. (The echo of paternalism is intentional)
(Adds later:) Peter and Martin may be groping towards meaningful cooperation but they’re stymied by the backwards pressures of the present and the pull of the past. This I fear may be the final verdict on their generation. Whatever the circumstances of their eventual departure, in the nature of things they can’t have long left, maybe two of three years. Who among their possible successors is shaping up to do better? If anything momentum has slid into reverse. Shock therapy in the form of compelling the Assembly to take responsibility for parades now seems hopelessly unrealistic.
Written in management- speak a report by KPMG for an OFDFM review into the performance of the Victims Commission is damning. Projects have been funded ad hoc while a definition of a victim is in dispute – indeed is being actively challenged by the DUP. They can’t even agree on how to spend a million quid, although – three cheers! – they’ve managed to cut the number of commissioners by 75%. Even then the unfortunate new commissioner hasn’t been spared attack. Here is another case of the Executive having the facts before them but being unable to do anything about them. Barring a miracle at the Haas talks there is no sign that the political system is capable of delivering on even the comparatively straightforward welfare aspects of the past. They seem incapable of making a big enough shift from oppositional political positioning to governing. If they can’t cope with victims support how can they get a clear sight of where the public interest lies over even handed justice?
The immediately significant major contribution Westminster must make is to take the lead in dealing with the past. They and not the locals were in charge. They remain in charge of the sharp end, “national security” today. The major service they could perform is to begin systematic examination of the dirty war files and incorporate new research from bodies such as the Pat Finucane centre. They should stop hiding behind relatives and the alibi of the local politicians’ failure to agree. Anne Cadwallader’s description of the research trail shows how the authorities need to extend the range of inquiry beyond the HET process.
Mick ( below) points up the hypocrisy of republicans demanding official disclosure while withholding it themselves; but this is a far bigger issue than the political propaganda war. But if the propaganda effect is still your big worry, it’s surely a mistake to leave the Finucane centre with a clear run.
Now I’m not entirely naïve. If there was collusion to the point of an integrated strategy of the police, special army units and MI5 with loyalist paramilitaries to destroy the IRA, it will be mighty difficult get admissions, not only on account of the massive legal implications but for the sake of present and future operations in a world of jihad. But this is also the age of Wikileaks and Snowden. On Northern Ireland the floodgates of disclosure are under strain. We may be approaching the same level of disclosure as Snowden by different routes. Much is openly acknowledged to be on the official record. In our hearts we know that much more of the truth will come out by one means of another whether motives are tainted or not.
If the conduct of security operations did not amount to a mass conspiracy directed from somewhere near the top it would be better to let us know now, in convincing detail. Legal process will be incredibly complex; in some cases process is exhausted, in others not. In others still, new evidence might lead to cases being reopened which premature disclosure would prejudice. The case for a special prosecutor on the American model with a time target and plea bargaining powers should be examined.
But if you think that the mandarins in Whitehall are just as worried about the drip feed of disclosure over collusion than they are over Snowden, you deceive yourself. Can you imagine Ms Villiers asking to see the files on south Armagh in the 1970s? They probably wouldn’t let her near them anyway. They’re convinced they‘ve done their bit with de Silva and are content to hold the line against a Finucane inquiry. With the rest they feel confident about shuffling them off to the vagaries of police and justice system and a vague willingness to allow access to heavily redacted files some day in the future.
The plain fact is that the British government can feel perfectly comfortable sitting pat. Pressure from Irish sources is no pressure at all. Washington is heavily preoccupied .The Labour opposition is ritually onside. The local parties grind their axes. Media pressure is virtually non- existent. Nationally only the Guardian provides a semblance of continuous coverage. Beyond the odd incident report BBC national reporting barely exists.
“The Irish story’s been over for – what is it? – fifteen years now. The Haas inquiry? How do you explain that in two minutes thirty anyway? And we’ve got far bigger and better examples of angry primitives overseas. The Irish threat to us has lifted. We’ve got another one now. The Irish (as we’re called) can stew in their own juice.”
It would be ironic wouldn’t it if Haass who was brought in to knock local heads together was to recommend that the meaningful initiative lies with the British government?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London