21/11/2013 09:55 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Northern Ireland Politicians Use Past Pain for Political Gain


Illustration by Ian Knox

The Attorney-General for Northern Ireland recently called for an end to the Troubles-related prosecutions. He was roundly and summarily dismissed. David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) in The Times was among them here. I agree in large part with those detractors. The law should not be abrogated. The law should be free, fair and open to those who seek justice.

But with those detractors I disagree in detail. I have four points:

Firstly, Northern Ireland is not your normal western liberal democracy. As Mick Fealty said, there exists two worlds in Northern Ireland. One is progressive, cosmopolitan, tolerant, ambitious. The other is a minority that extorts, blackmails and wields arbitrary power over a moderate majority. The politicians are complicit with these economic vandals and thugs.

The moderate has largely opted-out. Disturbed by the demented and anachronistic nature of the political process. The delinquency is self-sustaining.

Secondly, here's what the outsiders and other need to know about the past in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the past is not a servant. The past is its master. Politicians use the past in service of the present. Victims make votes. The past drives the cycle. As an Irish revolutionary once put it, Ernie O'Malley, "it's easy to travel on another man's wound." It's a sordid and squalid affair between politics and the past. The same tired debates and historical claims and counter-claims happen, time after time, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.

A majority care for and are concerned about jobs, education, cost of living and healthcare. For a huge number of young people and old, the past is a total irrelevancy. By effect, the political cycle is irrelevant to a silent, stoic majority. And so they opt-out and let them get on with it. As Fionola Meredith said:

"There is a glaring discrepancy between what we say we believe and what actually happens in government."

Thirdly, the poisonous link between politics and the past needs to stop. We need a wall of separation between politics and the past. Only then can we link the normal half of Northern Ireland to the political process and civic engagement.

Yes, people need justice and should have access to legal redress and remedy - I agree with David Aaronovitch, "You can't have amnesty for murder." But you can demand an amnesty against know-nothing political bum fights at the Stormont Assembly.

No, politicians and the media cannot make a currency, capital and political gain from the horrendous pain of people's past.

Fourthly, the link between the media and the past also needs to end. There is a glaring discrepancy between what people in Northern Ireland believe and what actually comes from the media. As Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, said:

"Fundamentally, a public discourse once solely focused on conflict has not evolved a new approach. There are only a handful of journalists who pay any attention to the wider cultural, social and economic dimensions of relations within Northern Ireland and between North and South."

I want justice for the victims and their families. But I also want good, forward-looking government. Government and victims must be divorced. At the end of the day, as Richard Haass said:

"My own sense... is that the vast majority of people here are ready for compromise, are ready for progress, are ready to move on."