I have frequently argued that the peace process in Northern Ireland is a model for conflict resolution elsewhere in the world. The 1998 Good Friday agreement had built on earlier breakthroughs like the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to enable pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics to join in a power-sharing government that ended decades of murder and violence.
The peace has since held, despite efforts by hardliners to rekindle the old hatreds. But in one crucial area the Irish peace process has failed compared to that in post-apartheid South Africa, which is how to come to terms with unsolved murders and how to offer amnesty for past crimes.
South Africa tackled this issue with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had the power to grant amnesty as long as crimes were politically motivated, proportionate and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty.
The failure to deal with Northern Ireland’s painful past was dramatized by the arrest last week of Gerry Adams by the police for questioning regarding the brutal 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10.
At the time, the Provisional Irish Republican Army believed she was an informer for British security forces, although a subsequent investigation found no evidence for this. In 1999, the IRA admitted the murder but McConville’s body was not found until 2003, when autopsy reports revealed she had been beaten and shot in the back of the head.
Two former IRA leaders, Brendan Hughes and Dolores Price, stated in an oral history before they died that Gerry Adams had authorized the murder. Mr. Adams, now president of a Sinn Fein party that has reworked its image, denies this and states that the murder was wrong and a grievous injustice. Notably, he has also used his militant past to ensure IRA adherence to the peace process for the past 16 years.
Mr. Adams was released without charge on Sunday after four days of questioning, leaving it to public prosecutors to decide whether to bring charges or not. However, the reality is that Mr. Adams would not have been arrested if there was a peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland that had reviewed such crimes as the murder of Jean McConville.
More than 3,500 people died in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” and there have been a number of attempts to enable all those responsible for the deaths, including the IRA, Protestant paramilitary groups and British security forces, to give evidence in a truth commission-style forum. The latest initiative in 2013 was led by former American diplomat Richard Haass, who proposed to the Northern Ireland political parties a “Commission for Information Retrieval” which would give limited immunity (but not amnesty) to those who offer information about atrocities and related violence.
But last December the inter-party talks broke up without agreement. One of the proposals was to remove responsibility for investigations into unsolved crimes from the police, which obviously would have included the McConville murder. This failure to agree on a policy dealing with past crimes from the Troubles was highlighted by a police action earlier this year to inform hundreds of former paramilitaries that they no longer faced arrest.
Public opinion in Ireland is divided on the issue. On the one hand, people don’t want to jeopardize the popular peace process by stirring up communal hatreds and memories of atrocities. On the other, most people feel that all sides should admit what they did and not continue to deny their actions.
It is hard to forgive those who did terrible things, but it is even harder to forgive them if they hypocritically persist in pretending they were never responsible for what happened. One can only hope that the political parties will now overcome extremist objections and bring closure to the victims of the violence by creating a comprehensive agreement on truth, reconciliation and immunity.
Ted Smyth, a former Irish diplomat, is a trustee of the Ireland Funds. A longtime senior executive in Pittsburgh for the H.J. Heinz Co., he now is an executive vice president for McGraw-Hill Co. in New York.