Questions of Truth and Accountability Awaken in Northern Ireland



The recent arrest of Gerry Adams, the president of the political party Sinn Féin, over his alleged connection to the abduction and murder of a widow in Belfast in 1972 has renewed intense interest over truth and accountability in Northern Ireland.

In 1998, Northern Ireland’s political parties along with the UK and Irish governments entered agreements (known as the Good Friday Agreement) to put an end to the violent three-decade confrontation between those in favor to reunify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and those who defend its belonging to the United Kingdom. Fifteen years later, Adams’ arrest has brought about one of the most delicate moments of the peace process, revealing an urgent need to deal with the unaddressed legacy of human rights abuses.

We spoke to Paul Seils, ICTJ’s vice president, who has just returned from a mission to Northern Ireland. In this interview with ICTJ’s Hannah Dunphy, Seils analyzes the most sensitive issues at stake in the region, such as how to deal with the past in a constructive way, and the validity of the Haass and O’Sullivan proposals on outstanding issues of the peace process.


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Seils says that the situation in Northern Ireland has slipped towards crisis in the last several months, when the executive parties were unable to reach an agreement over proposals addressing recent tensions including flying of flags, parades, and dealing with the past. While it appears that the Nationalist and Republicans were prepared to accept the Haass and O’Sullivan proposals in totality, the Unionist parties were not. Nonetheless, says Seils, “The Haass and O’Sullivan proposals are the most significant, if not the only game in town for dealing with past [in Northern Ireland].”

In his conversations with civil society organizations, Seils has noticed a shift in the approach on how to deal with the past: “One of the parties has moved from not focusing on dealing with the past at all to a much more focused debate on what does reconciliation really mean, how do we move forward, what kind of acknowledgment is necessary – and that’s a fairly significant change.”

Seils explained why this is such a delicate moment for Northern Ireland: “The good will and positive energy of the peace process to some extent has got to as far as it can take the process, and the things that have not been dealt with are now becoming much more obvious problems. Dealing with the past is the biggest issue.”

For ICTJ’s vice president, the first step in the discussion in Northern Ireland is to figure out if parties can agree to look at the Haass and O’Sullivan proposals regarding issues of “contending with the past,” and whether the will exists is in the communities to develop a reconciliation process “based on a constructive dealing with the past, rather than something that entrenches division.”

PHOTO: Family members stand beside seven white chairs in Belfast, which represent victims that have been abducted and murdered during the troubles and their bodies have never been recovered. Picture date: Thursday August 30, 2012. (Paul Faith/PA/AP Photo)