Truth, Justice, and Accountability: The Luck of the Irish?

Originally posted on May 15, 2014 at

To many outsiders, and the vast majority of Americans, it is difficult to imagine how truly grimly awful the period of discord known as The Troubles was to those in Northern Ireland. Sited mainly there, with plenty of spillover to both the Republic of Ireland and also across the sea in England, the conflict between the late 1960s and late 1990s involved over fifty thousand casualties in the part of Europe that Americans usually think of primarily as "like America." The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was an astonishing achievement to a problem that had been thought of as virtually intractable until only a half-dozen years before the signing. It was time. Both the Nationalists (largely Catholic and in sympathy with and desiring to join the Republic of Ireland) and the Unionists (mainly Protestant and keen to have Northern Ireland continue as a political unit of the United Kingdom) seemed tired enough to embrace peace while the details continued to be worked out. Other than the extremists on both the Nationalist and Unionist sides, the peoples of Northern Ireland seemed ready to breathe for a while.

It nearly didn't work out that way. Less than two years after signing the Agreement, the fragile truce had been shaken to the foundation by renegade elements from both Nationalist and Unionist factions that seemed intent to settle old scores from the period of conflict. The truce hadn't really resolved these conflicts, only frozen them. Grudges that had been held and amplified into blood feuds over decades were unlikely to burn out quickly. I wrote an op-ed piece in March 2000 that originally appeared in the Washington Post wherein I pointed out the very real dangers of backsliding and how quickly the peace could be shattered into ever greater cycles of civil disturbance and revenges with vigilante justice used to settle old scores, at least until the opposite side could "resettle" their scores, etc. While I strove to write from a place of truth, the article was not received well in all quarters and there were even a few death threats thrown my way. Were it not so disconcerting, it would have been the perfect way to underscore the point. With tremendous effort and difficulty, both sides were able to return to civil discourse and the peace process resumed. Bumps continued to happen occasionally, but no great derailments threatened again since 2000's rift was healed by direct involvement of the Irish, American, and UK governments to prod people back to the table.

Now nobody less than Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has been arrested in connection to the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten, over forty years ago. Though there are issues with the case (testimony given that was sworn to be confidential and to be protected as such was turned over to the UK from an American university), the very fact that as powerful of a figure as Adams can be called in with regard to murder is a powerful testimony to the fact that wounds tend to resurface unless properly healed. As Cadwallader's piece in the New York Times testifies, "witnesses, perpetrators, the mothers and fathers of the dead are all getting older and dying. The truth, little by little, is disappearing." Accountability is a key part of transitional justice and reconciliation and it will be a good thing to have Gerry Adams answer for what part he played in the heinous past crime. But the wounds of Northern Ireland will continue to fester unless there is a systematic attempt to address and heal all those who have been wounded and aggrieved during both The Troubles and the intercommunal tensions that continue to be a palpable presence.

Done properly, a reconciliation process might look like what happened in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee when a transition was made from a racist apartheid white-supremacist government to an inclusive diverse multicultural government with respect for majority rule and minority protections. Presided over by none other than the august and amazing Desmond Tutu, the writ was simple. If you were guilty of past abuses and crimes, whether from the government side or the anti-apartheid resistance (and though the apartheid allies provided the majority of the fodder, there was no shortage of abuse and crime that came from the ANC or Inkathaor other resistant organizations), then you must come forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and tell the truth, the whole truth without exempting any part of the culpability nor involvement or either you nor people you had affinities with. In doing so, it was possible to avoid the heavy punishments that you'd expect to come along with such crimes. The corollary was that the Commission was not on an unlimited writ, so it was imperative to hie thee ho to testify on crimes, and that if you failed to give full testimony to any crimes that were later uncovered, that you'd be liable for full penalties of prosecution for all crimes that you were associated with. In doing so, there was closure for victims and families, truth for society, and a way forward for a nation forging itself anew in the aftermath of decades of oppression and abuse.

Many nations have done this to varying degrees of success or are trying it now (or should be). Cambodia, ArgentinaChileEl Salvador, and Peru are but a few more recent examples. Each could have done better. A relatively early well-known case of reconciliation and accountability occurred in the Nuremberg Trials that followed Germany's defeat in WWII. Unfortunately, after processing high-profile low-value targets, Western governments had no problem quickly assimilating and offering inducements to Nazi scientists, some of whom had been deeply complicit with the Reich, to come to work for them and to settle in their home countries. More disturbingly, we can watch the contortions that the American political establishment now goes through to attempt to defuse and deny any demands that there be any accountability for the architects of carefully premeditated and badly justified torture, of extrajudicial murder of even American citizens by remote drones, and of the selective application of all sorts of human rights principles.

Another world is possible. A better world is possible. We can move forward from this strange place that we find ourselves in and return to a clearer and more dignified purpose of actually defending human rights rather than assaulting them. We can support other countries in engaging their own reconciliation processes if we like, but we must deal with our own to maintain anything resembling credibility.

Write, call, or email your representatives in the House and Senate ( for details). Ask them simply to demand accountability for the architects of human rights abuse in the United States. Ask them to push forward to have the United States join the International Criminal Court. Ask them to stop drone killings, to end torture of prisoners in custody, and to honor the full letter and spirit of the entirety of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And ask them to revive engagement with Northern Ireland's own reconciliation process, to support a full and complete process of accountability and reconciliation for all of the grievances from The Troubles.

Let the Battle of the Boyne fade into books rather than be a charged piece of lived provocation. Let the memory of Abu Ghraib be a cautionary warning to all citizens everywhere of the need to protect human rights even in times of war. Let accountability have a form and a process and let the outcome be reconciliation. The world has more than enough problems that need our undivided attention to solve and enough people who need us all to help give a hand up to. Let's learn the lessons of the past, so that we may finally stop repeating their worst bits. The Irish have had enough of The Troubles. Handled correctly, the questioning of Gerry Adams can be the first step in holding all parties accountable and reconciling communities where tension still exists. Handled poorly, it becomes an exercise in politically targeted and incomplete prosecution where there is much that needs to be done. Shouldn't we work to make the "luck of the Irish" into another example of reconciliation and conflict transformation gone right rather than another example of it derailed and accountability denied?