Before we can make any meaningful progress regarding the design or development of a legacy process, we must first be totally clear about what we are trying to achieve – what are the aims and objectives of such a process?
While this may be a simple question, it is one that those within the Establishment – those who are involved in putting together legacy structures – have failed to engage with in any effective way.
While the question about aims and objectives may be a simple one, the response is undoubtedly complex. There are many voices from very many backgrounds to be listened to and taken account of. For some, a legacy process is about the search for truths, justice and accountability. Others talk of “information retrieval,” prosecutions and police-led investigations. And for others affected and afflicted by violence and conflict related trauma, they speak of rehabilitation, reparation and reconciliation. Whatever the preference, one thing is clear – all of this arises from grief and rage rooted in the past.
However, without any semblance of collective agreement of aims and objectives, it is difficult to see how a successful legacy strategy – one that improves and does not worsen the situation – is possible. Conflict, in part, is a battle of narratives and the legitimacy of those narratives. It is also a battle of hearts and minds. George Orwell argued that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” We have a duty to ensure that the past does not become a battleground on which remaining and emerging conflicts are played out. Getting involved in arguments around who is right and who is wrong is a zero sum game that will achieve nothing other than continuing the pain of victims and survivors.
In a recently released Loyalist policy document engaging with themes of legacy and the future, the authors made clear that, “The Fresh Start Agreement devised to consolidate peace, secure stability, enable progress and offer hope” excluded Loyalists from the process. To exclude Loyalists from a legacy process, just as to exclude any other stakeholder, is to impede and sabotage any progress on how we engage and deal with the past.
The decision to exclude and isolate Loyalists once again reinforces the glaringly obvious design fault from all other failed attempts at designing a legacy process – calling into question the entire efficacy of the structures. At a basic level, it is nonsensical that Loyalists who have the ability to provide relevant and important information to others experiencing trauma or bereavement as a result of the conflict, should be given no opportunity to participate meaningfully in the legacy process.
This goes beyond the concept of parity of esteem which is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement – though this is undoubtedly relevant and important as it seems every other stakeholder is at the table. While governments will look after the British and Irish state interests – similarly the DUP look after the security forces, and Sinn Fein look after Republicans – as it sits no one is at the table either willing or able to represent the interests and needs of the Loyalist community and in particular its victims and survivors. This is a flaw that could spell failure even before any process gets off the ground. Without all stakeholders being provided with an opportunity to participate, a legacy process will do little more than pay lip service to the needs of victims, and will do nothing to provide the outcome they may wish to see.
We must also be wary of a process that pits information recovery against police investigation and retribution against reparation – a process which is contradictory from the inside will never be successful and will only damage confidence in the long term. It is obvious that any process that is contradictory on the inside will seem even more contradictory to those on the outside trying to negotiate it. A helter-skelter process which is dominated by pressure for one sided prosecutions will undoubtedly stymie any move in searching for truths, information and healing the harms from the past.
Any legacy process should be constructed with the support and assistance of those it is meant to benefit – it should be a bottom-up process, not one that imposed structures from the top down. Whatever way we look at it, a people-led process must actively include and involve the Loyalist community, just as it should actively involve all other stakeholders. A legacy process cannot succeed if it is mired in complexity – this places an onus on us all to be clear about what we would like a process to achieve and what it can realistically achieve. Until we have satisfactorily addressed this, as well as ensuring that no one will be excluded from legacy discussions, then I cannot see how we can begin to shape a process.
One thing it is important to remember is that things can change for the better – the last twenty years have shown this. The case for addressing the past must always be viewed in the context of embedding and sustaining peace in the long term. Dealing with the past is about the future. However, this will require more vision, more courage and more compromises on all sides, as well as an honesty about what really can be achieved for victims and survivors. Grief and hope can co-exist and the power of both can help to create a better future.