Late on Monday night I travelled out to the RTE studios in Dublin to do a Prime Time interview on the issue of victims of republican actions. The program makers say their interest was sparked by my remarks in the Dáil in January following the killing of Garda Adrian Donohoe.
On that occasion I apologised to the family of Garda Jerry McCabe who was killed by the IRA in June 1996. I also apologised to the families of other members of the State forces who were killed by republicans in the course of the conflict. I said: “I am very sorry for the pain and loss inflicted on these families. No words of mine can remove that hurt and dreadful deeds cannot be undone. However, I restate that the resolve of Sinn Féin and the majority of Irish people is to ensure there will never, ever be a recurrence of conflict.”
The war is over but the legacy of partition, of decades of discrimination, injustice and of conflict, means that there are many unresolved issues still facing society on this island. One of the most important is how we address this issue of victims.
Over three and a half thousand people were killed and many thousands more injured by combatant groups on all sides. Families were bereaved and years later continue to struggle with the pain and loss. Many also want truth. Who killed their loved one? Why?
This is certainly true of the three families who were interviewed for Prime Time. Garda Michael Clerkin was killed in October 1976; Garda Inspector Sam Donegan was killed by a bomb on the Cavan/Fermanagh border in June 1972, and Chief Prison Officer Brian Stack was shot 1983. He later died from his injuries. The film report carried at the beginning of Prime Time was a powerful reminder of the trauma that bereaved families live each day.
Over many years I have met other families in this same situation. Their stories are equally harrowing. Some were victims of the IRA. Others were killed as a result of collusion between British state forces and loyalist death squads, or by the British Army and RUC and the UDR. The grief and trauma suffered by all of these families is the same. This experience has convinced me that there can be no hierarchy of victims. All victims must be treated on the basis of equality.
In these three cases the IRA never accepted responsibility. In each case there is the possibility that other republican groups might have been responsible. It is certainly true that some Gardaí were killed by the INLA, Saor Éire and other smaller armed groups and it is possible that criminals might have been involved in one of these deaths.
The truth is that I don’t know. I have no personal information in respect of any of these three deaths. If the IRA was responsible or if individual or other republicans were involved then I have no hesitation in apologising to these families also. And I said so and did so on Prime Time.
But this doesn’t bring these families any closer to knowing with certainty who was responsible or why. Like hundreds, perhaps thousands of other families, they seek closure. Most do not want revenge. They don’t want anyone going to prison. But they do want to know what happened.
How do we achieve this for victims? There are two examples of how this can be done. One is the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. It provided for former combatants from the IRA, the Official IRA and the British Army to give testimony.
More recently there is the Smithwick Tribunal which is examining the circumstances surround the killing of two RUC officers in March 1989. In that instance I met at his request with Justice Smithwick who asked if I could help. I explained to him that in 2005 the IRA put its weapons beyond use and stood down its structures. The IRA had left the stage. However, after some effort three former IRA volunteers did give evidence to the Tribunal.
This was a significant and unprecedented development. For the first time former members of the IRA gave evidence to an inquiry into an IRA action. Clearly this would not have been possible but for the Tribunal creating the context to allow it.
I met with Justice Smithwick because I sincerely believe that there is a responsibility on republicans to assist bereaved families if and when they can, though this may not be possible in all cases.
These examples show that with political will it would be possible for the two governments to help bring about a truth and reconciliation process that can secure the participation of former combatants and provide the answers that families seek.
Sinn Féin has put forward a specific proposal for the governments to invite a reputable independent international body to establish such a commission. It would be independent of both states and the combatant groups, of the political parties, and civil society and economic interests and it should have the remit to inquire into the extent and pattern of past violations as well as their causes and consequences.
Events and actions in the Irish state have to be clearly part of this. After the Tan War and the dreadful Civil War that followed there was no such process. There was no attempt to locate the scores of remains of those killed and disappeared. There was no effort to heal wounds. Victims were not looked after. On the contrary the divisions of that period shaped the decades that have followed and contributed to corruption that became a part of the political system.
This lesson must be learned. A truth process must look at all actions, including those that occurred in the Irish state. This means a truth process addressing the fact that republicans were killed in this part of the island, including Tom Smith, Hugh Hehir, John Francis Green and Councillor Eddie Fullerton.
It has to address the experience of political prisoners in the jails; the role of the Heavy Gang and the fact that innocents were imprisoned; collusion between elements of the Irish establishment and the British system; and that that there were there were bombs in Dublin and Monaghan and Dundalk involving collusion between British state forces and loyalists.
There were other killings too by armed groups like the Official IRA and INLA. These include Larry White of Cork killed by the OIRA in June 1975 and Seamus Costello in October 1977.
Other may have a different vision for a truth process. That’s fine. But whatever sort of truth process is created it cannot be about putting people back into the prisons. The Good Friday Agreement, which the two governments and the political parties signed up to and which the people voted for in referendums, drew a line in the sand. It opened up a democratic and peaceful way to achieve political objectives and by so doing removed the reason for armed actions. It released all political prisoners. This was a necessary part of making the peace process work. Without it there would have been no Good Friday Agreement. Many of these former prisoners are champions of the peace process.
Filling the prisons again for actions that occurred, in some instances over 40 years ago, would be counter-productive. It would play into the hands of those small and unrepresentative groups who want to undermine the peace process and return society on this island back to conflict. We cannot allow that to happen.
As a republican leader I have a duty and responsibility to do my best to help victims and their families. That is why I did the Prime Time interview.
Regrettably, instead of an intelligent focussed examination of how victims can be helped by republicans and others and scrutinising in a robust way the proposition we are developing, the programme reverted to type.
Miriam missed an opportunity to do a potentially ground breaking interview.
Sadly it seems to me that the bereaved families who featured in the Prime Time programme will have taken little succour from it.
Despite this I will not be deterred. My generation of republican activists who lived through and survived the war have a responsibility to try and bring the families of victims of the war, irrespective of who was responsible, to a better place.