The Attorney General’s intervention into the debate on Dealing with the Past and victims affairs (which by the way, as Nick Garbutt points out, are two entirely distinct things) was unnecessary, unwelcome and uncalled for. What he said was a legal interpretation of a deeply emotional set of issues – a view to which he is welcome, but which there was no need to place in the public domain in the way he did. That he publicised his view at all was bad enough, but to do so without even notifying key figures – for example, the Victims Commissioner (whose own response was sensitive and superb) – was outright callous. I am not prone to conspiracies, but you have to wonder who was notified and whose agenda he is working to.
What he said was not entirely wrong. In fact, much of it was right – something which only makes it more painful to bear.
The exact quote which circulated in the media was not representative of the detail of what Mr Larkin had to say. In fact his basic point seemed to be that the quest for justice often impedes the quest for truth – and that indeed in the past, as with “decommissioning” and the “Disappeared”, we have accepted this by allowing a process to continue while deliberately stopping the quest for justice (by agreeing not to take forensic evidence from guns or bodies recovered). This is a highly inconvenient truth.
It gets worse, of course. As I have written before, the whole “Peace Process” requires that we suspend the quest for justice. Most obviously, we are required to believe that Gerry Adams is an international statesman, not a former terrorist who needs to be tried for criminal offences. He and his ilk are already effectively immune from prosecution – again, as I have written elsewhere, the whole process demands a large degree of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and implicitly allows each “side” to escape justice, provided they don’t demand it of anybody else. We can safely say Gerry Adams committed crimes – we can also safely say that he will never be charged and that thus the victims of them will never attain justice. This is another highly inconvenient truth.
All of this is horrendous for victims. A soon-to-be-published piece of research clarifies this very neatly – victims are told by a Privy Counsellor that they are “entitled to the right to pursue justice”. Read that again – entitled to “pursue”, but not to “justice” itself. That is, effectively, what we agreed in 1998; even in 2013, too many politicians and civic actors are all in favour of campaigns for justice which they know will never be successful.
Justice is, of course, distinct from the truth – as has been widely recognised elsewhere. Victims I have spoken to have often made clear that the “truth” is what they seek (though far from always – every one is of course different), as is evidenced by the broad acceptance of the Prime Minister’s apology for Bloody Sunday.
Here again, however, we need to note that any public exhibition of the truth in all or even most cases, and of who was responsible for what, would probably bring down the institutions and certainly end any prospect of modern-day community leaders co-operating at Peace Walls and such like – in other words, overall, it would be to the detriment of modern Northern Irish society. That brings us to a private exhibition of the truth – I am no expert on how we go about that, but the logic of the “peace process” is that it is the only option left.
To some extent, therefore, what the Attorney General is suggesting is a logical progression of the 1998 and 2006 Agreements – I just wish he had done so privately. Also, I would have phrased it rather differently and I would have been clear that victims must be central – victims must be told clearly what the likelihood is of justice, but ultimately it is up to them to determine whether, in their individual case, to abandon that quest and opt to seek solely the truth instead.
In other words, I would be quite clear that everyone has the right to justice, but also that this leaves us with this very difficult question to answer: what do we do now about the fact that we blatantly asked people to forego that right (for the “greater good”) in 1998?