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Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace

  Sisters Kristy (left) and Charlene Taggert at play in a loyalist area of Belfast where paramilitary murals cover house walls. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)
More photos

To move on, a call for 'total truth'

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 7/8/2003

Last of three parts


Five years after accord, Belfast finds unity elusive

Next few months seen as decisive in peace process

British government accused in lawyer's slaying

To move on, a call for 'total truth'



Theresa McNeill with her sons on the Catholic side of the peace wall.
Pictures from Belfast


Patrick Finucane's widow Geraldine with her son, John.
The Patrick Finucane case


Visitors to the peace wall along Cupar Way in Belfast.
Looking to the future

(Globe Staff Photos / Barry Chin)


A look at the major Catholic and Protestant groups


Policing Northern Ireland


Questions for Gerry Adams and David Trimble
The Globe's Charles Sennott sat down with the Sinn Fein president and the Ulster Unionist Party leader. Read excerpts from the interviews.


Belfast accord hailed as a 'new beginning'
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff

The long, bloody path to Irish peace
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff

A resounding vote for Irish peace
By Kevin Cullen and Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff

In an Ulster town, hate still thrives
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff


IRA statement on Northern Ireland peace process


Text of Good Friday agreement

Northern Ireland census
Recent census information is available from the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency at

Police Service of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Executive

Bloody Sunday Enquiry

Stevens Enquiry
Report on the latest Patrick Finucane investigation, released April 17.

(PDF file requires Adobe Acrobat)

British-Irish Rights Watch
Report on the Finucane case from an independent human rights group.

Pat Finucane Centre
Links to reports and news articles on the Finucane case.

ELFAST -- There are moments when Iona Meyer feels her husband, Gary, is still there -- when she notices how their son has adopted his father's mannerisms, or when she hears the soccer scores on the radio.

But then comes the remembrance ceremony in June every year for the 302 police officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who were killed during thirty years of sectarian conflict, and the mournful skirl of bagpipes brings home the reality that he is not there, and never will be.

Gary Meyer, 34, was shot in the back on June 30, 1990, in broad daylight along with his partner as they patrolled on foot along Queens Street in downtown Belfast. Both men were killed. The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility.

Meyer, like two-thirds of the widows of slain Royal Ulster Constabulary officers and more than half of all the families of the 3,352 killed on both sides in ''The Troubles,'' has never seen the killers brought to justice. Like so many others, Protestant and Catholic alike, she has lived with the haunting questions.

Meyer, chairwoman of the constabulary's Widows Association, said the group began a discussion last month on how she and other widows can find closure, and whether establishing a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland could be a starting point.

She is part of a nascent movement in Northern Ireland that has begun to weigh the possibility of such a commission. This small but diverse group of Protestants and Catholics, police, priests, community activists, and academics is bound by a belief that the political process alone will not bring the collective closure needed for lasting peace.

Hugh Orde, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said of the idea: ''Every victim's family deserves an answer, or at least an understanding.''

''The families should be in control of that process. But we need to begin a debate about it. We need to find a way to give everyone the answers they need.''

That the debate has begun inside the halls of what was known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary -- renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement -- is itself significant. The old constabulary was for most of the 20th century a central symbol of British and Protestant domination of Northern Ireland. The meager number of Catholics on the force, and the perception that it was openly hostile to Irish nationalists, made the constabulary a target for the IRA's fight against British rule.

The changes within the new police service and the grappling over how to get at the truths of the past are signs of the efforts being made to get beyond the days of sectarian violence.

But the movement for a truth commission is also driven by practical considerations. Orde recently informed the victims on all sides that he does not have the capacity to go back and solve every case from the 30-year conflict.

Of the 3,352 killings, more than 1,800 are unsolved, Orde said, and of the 302 constabulary officers killed, 211 cases remain unsolved. Tens of thousands more people have been disabled by the bombs and the bullets and the beatings. Orde said his force, reduced from 13,000 to 9,000 officers under the Good Friday agreement, has neither the staff nor the budget to keep all of the unsolved cases open.

In an interview at his office, Orde said, ''I can police the past or I can police the future, but I can't do both.''

Orde has been applauded for his efforts to implement the recommendations for transforming the old police force by recruiting Catholics. But success has been minimal -- the Catholic representation in the ranks has been increased from 7 percent to 9 percent.

Denis Bradley, a former priest who for 20 years was a key mediator between the IRA and the British government and who now serves as a community representative on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said the debate is crucial. ''That this idea of a truth and justice forum is even being discussed is a significant step into a new direction and a recognition that we will need some practical way to bring closure for people, a way forward that will have to be outside the political process and outside the established judicial process.'' The idea is not supported by the political leadership on either side.

Such an effort, which Meyer noted is only being contemplated and was first introduced for discussion by her group late last month, would involve what is known as ''restorative justice.''

What is being explored, she said, is a process along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in postapartheid South Africa. All sides were brought together before a commission headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to allow the truth to be told -- in exchange for amnesty -- so that grieving families could know what happened, and then perhaps move on with their lives.

David Tombs, a Belfast-based lecturer of reconciliation studies at Trinity College's School of Ecumenics, said other models could also be applied, such as Peru, Chile, El Salvador, and the former Yugoslavia -- cases where the political transition could be more similar to Northern Ireland's.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission issued a report last Wednesday that highlighted the need for victims of the conflict -- from those crippled by bombings or rubber bullets to bereaved families left without any sense of justice -- to see their suffering acknowledged. The commission's director, Brice Dickson, followed up the report by urging the British government's Northern Ireland Office to support a truth process.

''There is a crucial need for a forum to find the truth as a way toward closure for many victims,'' he said. ''It's time to move in that direction, and I think there is a gradual momentum that is very recent but potentially very important.''

Meyer herself expressed reservations about such a forum, especially one that granted amnesty, but said she felt a need for a debate to begin.

Meyer, 46, who works as a civil servant and has raised the couple's two children on her own, said: ''We've all moved so far, but then there is a brick wall. To get us over that wall, we'd have to have total truth, not the selective truths we have seen with so many inquiries, but a wider truth that would mean answers for us and justice for us as well.

''We don't know what shape it would take, but we are going to begin looking for some new avenues for justice,'' she said.

The Rev. Denis Faul, a Tyrone County Catholic priest who was a focus of controversy when he ministered to IRA hunger strikers and their families in the early 1980s and tried to persuade the young men not to starve to death, said, ''There would need to be a lot more momentum for a truth and reconciliation commission, but certainly there needs to be something new to get us forward.

''I think the republicans have lost the Protestant population through their refusal to express regret and sympathy to the families of the policemen who were killed,'' he said. ''Most of those families are working-class people, good decent people, some of them Catholic. If we are going to heal, we are going to have to find a way for everyone to have their pain addressed, not just a selective few.''

Even the Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, the highest-ranking British official in the province, has told the BBC that a commission was one of a number of possibilities the government was prepared to consider to draw a line under Northern Ireland's troubled past.

The movement appears to grow at least in part out of widespread frustration with the extraordinary cost and limited scope of individual inquiries and investigations. The biggest by far is the Bloody Sunday Inquiry into the events of Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers fired on protesters at a civil rights march in Derry, claiming the lives of 14 unarmed Catholic civilians. After spending $150 million and taking three years of testimony, the inquiry is not expected to deliver a final report until 2005.

To critics, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry is a colossal waste of time and money. Supporters say the truth is finally being told. The most controversial investigation is the one into the murder of Patrick Finucane, the Catholic civil rights lawyer killed in 1989, and at least five other similar probes into ''collusion'' between British security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups that carried out the murders.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, said he is ''a bit dubious'' about a truth and reconciliation commission and believes ''the best thing is to draw a line and move on and not to constantly scratch at the wounds and reopen them.''

In a rare agreement between two men from opposite ends of Northern Ireland's political spectrum, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is also suspicious of attempts to form such a commission.

In a recent interview he said that historically there was a ''hierarchy of victimhood'' in which British forces and police officers who were killed were at the top and those who were killed by the state forces were at the bottom. The current independent inquiries are intended to address that past discrepancy, he said.

''I am for people telling the truth, I am for closure,'' Adams said, but he added that it would be wrong to use South Africa's commission as a model.

''First of all, we do not have a Tutu here. The church has never played that strong role in justice here,'' he said. ''And you have to remember that was a sovereign government in South Africa that established [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission]. . . . That was a painful way for the whole country to reach a new dispensation after the political change had been resolved. . . . We are a long way from that.''

Members of the Finucane family also see such a commission as an attempt by the British government to broaden the scope of examining the past as a way to diminish the specific revelations of state collusion with loyalist paramilitary death squads that targeted those perceived as political opponents, including Finucane.

''There is a profound difference when the injustice, the killing, was done at the hands of the state, and the inquiries are needed to get answers out of a state that has resisted any process of justice,'' said Michael Finucane, who was 17 when his father was slain.

Walking along the newly developed Belfast waterfront one early morning, Iona Meyer said that neither she nor her husband was ever sectarian and that her best friend, Eileen Maguire, a Catholic, helped her cope with her husband's death. She said she understands the Finucane family's pain.

''I am not taking away from what Geraldine Finucane feels. Her loss is just as great as mine. She raised her kids alone just like I did,'' Meyer said. ''But what I am saying is we can't have selective justice. We have to have total truth on all sides, and answers for everyone, if we are going to move forward together.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/8/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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