Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Dealing with the past…

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The DUP’s Jimmy Spratt has just given one of those interviews which may, at best, make no better contribution than to entrench old stereotypes of unionists and, at worst, to make unionists appear equivocal on the subject of collusion.
This is what Jimmy told the BBC (listen in atc.1 hr 20 mins):

I think it’s highly unprofessional for her to be out there given there’s going to be an ongoing investigation involving HET. We’ve seen in the last number of weeks people continuing to be charged. So it is a live investigation and I don’t think America or Irish America has anything to offer on this, and certainly cooperation from the unionist community will not be there.

The first part of that statement is an everyday procedural point. Jimmy is an ex-policeman so one expects him to be sensitive to the integrity of an investigation. (I’m sure O’Loan for her part would counter that she wouldn’t dream of divulging any information that might imperil a live investigation.)

But the problem lies in the latter part of this statement: America and Irish America has nothing to offer; the unionist community will not cooperate. How can that be true? Why will the unionist community not cooperate?

This congressional committee is not the perfect forum for discussion – but it is a legitimate forum for discussion, and it’s emblematic of a bigger challenge. An ad hoc, unregulated and unplanned system of truth gathering etc is emerging through a number of sources. Is it not a concern that this patchwork of multifarious events / reports / committees etc might generate a kind of ‘common law’ as to how we deal with the past? The decision of one event will influence the next report which impacts on committee which shapes the next event which influences… and so.. and so…

Is there a mechanism for cross-(unionist)party consensus on this? Has anyone attempted to audit the policy of each Unionist Party on the past? Can the vast amount of material each party has produced on the subject be rationalised into an agreeable strategy?

In the above, Jimmy re-stated a well-worn holding line, but then went further to say the unionist community withholds cooperation on this collusion investigation. How will that statement shape or influence things? Will is positively or negatively influence opinion in the US/in unionist communities/among key decision-makers in society/sectoral stakeholders etc etc?

This position must evolve. Jimmy is pissed off at this committee, but in the absence of a considered position on allegations of collusion he intimated that this committee should just bugger off. (It’s not too clever given that Raymond McCord has proven to be a powerful voice from within the Unionist community and he has recognised the legitimacy of the committee. What does McCord think of Spratt’s interview? What will the Sunday World make of it – as they’ve shown a great deal of interest in the McCord case?)

These are complex issues. But for the Unionist community not to arrive at a clear, settled consensus on how to deal with the past is not evidence of an unwillingness to confront this area. Each party has committed significant time, effort and resources into this policy area. But, despite all those efforts, Jimmy Spratt still interviewed in the way he did. How? Why is there not a more developed, nuanced position?

As this ad hoc system continues, we will find this happening again and again and again. How much longer can unionist representatives give that type of interview? Is there not the danger than unionism will eventually lose credibility and its scope to shape the nature of the debate?

But the immediate problem is this: in terms of perception and message, it can be argued that stating the unionist community must withhold cooperation from a congressional committee merely presents the Unionist community as unhelpful, dismissive of the subject, dismissive of US congress and insensitive to victims (and so on and so on). This at a time when US eyes are focused on the region (Clinton; Stock Exchange investment; ITLG etc). Would it not have been better to avoid this?

There are a lot of groups doing valuable work on this topic. I know each Unionist party works hard on this area and in engaging with them. But how much cooperation exists between the parties? Could there be more? How might the policy channels between DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP be improved? How do we insure against ‘bugger off’ being employed as the line to take in the future?


Filed under: Community, dealing with the past

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