‘Count your fingers after you shake their hands’ was what one Dublin comrade advised me when I first broached with him the idea of resigning my west Belfast seat and standing for the Dáil.
‘If you think politics in the North are nasty think again. It is a pale imitation of what you need to prepare for in this state. Partitionism is ingrained – it runs deep within the political establishment, and decades of gombeenism has taken its toll. And be warned the leaderships of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael don’t care about the North – they pretend to but most don’t. It’s up there and that’s where they want to keep it.”
He was right. During every negotiation, however big or small, the Irish government were at times more of a hindrance than an ally. And we were more often the enemy as they cosied up to the Brits. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the approach of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour to the issue of the past. Long before I entered the Dáil, but with increasing intensity since then, one issue after another has been seized on, especially at election time, to attack Sinn Féin.
The real politick of course is that this suits their own narrow political agenda. Fianna Fáil especially sees Sinn Féin as an electoral competitor.
This isn’t about truth or victims it’s about political expediency and party political advantage.
And they are aided and abetted in this by elements of the media, especially within the Independent Group and other establishments hacks.
After nearly thirty years of conflict, and before that decades of state injustice and institutional discrimination, society in the North needs a process of truth recovery and reconciliation that can heal the hurt.
The southern parties failed to do this after the Tan War and Civil War. Society in that part of the island has been blighted by the failure to address the divisions arising from that period of history. As a result civil war politics continues to exert a destructive influence. Although as politics slowly realigns many citizens are learning that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share many of the same conservative values and establishment mores.
The parties in the North, haven’t always agreed on how the past should be dealt with and unionist leaders have refused to publicly acknowledge a responsibility for the conflict, but we have reached agreements. Our main difficulty at this time is the malign involvement of a British government that wants to avoid any meaningful exposure of its role in the conflict and of an Irish government that doesn’t really care.
There are hundreds of cases in the North where families are seeking acknowledgment, truth and information about the deaths of their loved ones. The British government is actively blocking this. What does the Irish government do? Nothing.
British agencies and agents were active participants in the bombing of Kay’s Tavern, in Dundalk in which Jack Rooney and Hugh Watters were killed, and the murder of Seamus Ludlow. They were also responsible for the Dublin Monaghan Bombings. After conducting an extensive examination of the Barron Commission reports the sub-committee reported, “that given that we are dealing with acts of international terrorism that were colluded in by the British security forces, the British Government cannot legitimately refuse to co-operate with investigations and attempts to get to the truth.”
Where is the outrage that a neighbouring government engaged in international acts of terrorism within the Irish state? Where are the demands for British Ministers, police officers, intelligence chiefs and unionist paramilitary members to be questioned about what they know?
The British government has also failed to establish the public inquiry, agreed at Weston Park in 2001, into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
And it is thwarting at this moment the north’s Lord Chief Justice’s efforts to hold legacy inquests.
This isn’t just a passive British government. This is an active effort to thwart the creation of processes that can get to the truth. It is blocking families having access to files held in the public archives. And the refusal to fund legacy inquests and investigations are all in clear breech of Britain’s international human rights obligations.
What has been the Irish government’s response? It has failed to challenge the British stand. Ticking the box at a meeting with a British Prime Minister or Secretary of State is not the same as having a consistent domestic and international strategy in Britain and Europe, and at the United Nations, to persuade the British government to co-operate.
Part of the problem is the limited vision of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaderships. They are mostly motivated by the desire for political office and their vision is limited to the parameters of the southern state. They rarely think all-Ireland. They have no strategy for unity and whether it is Brexit or the peace process their approach to the North is wholly clumsy and hesitant. The most glaring example of Irish government indifference and ineptness is around the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement on the past that was agreed in December 2014.
The Stormont House Agreement proposes the establishment of an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval which will cover both jurisdictions on this island and deal with all conflict related deaths.
The core of this proposal is based on confidentiality and trust and it agrees that any information it receives will not be disclosed to law enforcement and intelligence agencies and the information will be inadmissible in criminal and civil proceedings.
As part of this process the governments, drafted and published an international agreement to establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval. This was laid jointly in the houses of the Oireachtas and Westminster in January of this year.
It has not yet commenced as the British Government continues to seek to exercise a national security veto regarding the judicial process.
So, the Irish government agreed a process to secure information for victims based on confidentiality and trust. It has legislation sitting waiting to be enacted but the British are blocking it. What is the government doing about this? Where is the public, and the private campaigns to push the British to honour another agreement? There is none.
In the absence of a formal truth recovery process I agreed in 2013 a confidential process with the Stack brothers to secure for them acknowledgement and information about who killed their father. I delivered what they asked of me and now I have become the target of a despicable and opportunistic campaign led by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and the Taoiseach.
Could someone please tell me how they expect a truth recovery process to be implemented if I break my word? Why would anyone, IRA volunteer or British soldier, RUC officer, or Unionist paramilitary, or British or unionist politician ever contemplate speaking about their role in the conflict?
Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny have turned their back on the principles of information retrieval, and of helping victims, that the Irish government signed up to December 2014 in the Stormont House Agreement.
Their actions also mean that I will now have to carefully review whether I can ever engage in this kind of ad hoc process again. The Stack family were not the first I helped. But if another family come to me I may now have to say, sorry I can’t help. Or maybe I should send them to Micheál Martin or Enda.