Saville Report – What Happens Next

Northern Ireland doesn’t need prosecutions – it needs the state to open its books

June 2010

The iconography of Northern Ireland is changing – and with it the official narrative of what that armed conflict stretching across three decades was all about.

The priest Edward Daly waving his bloodstained handkerchief as he escorted Jackie Duddy’s body out of the firing line in the Bogside on 30 January 1972 is the iconic moment.

It now accompanied by another defining image: The look on the face of his sister Kay Duddy, and that handkerchief -  now a  rather sacred relic – that was brought out to the Guildhall to greet the publication of the Saville report.

The relatives of the dead and wounded on Bloody Sunday wore “a look of liberation,” says Professor Christine Bell, one of Northern Ireland’s premier experts on peace processes and transitional justice.

The acceptance of the Saville report by the leaders of the unionist and loyalist parties, and the visit of Protestant church leaders to the relatives, mark a radical change of tone and dialogue.

We have known for three decades what happened, we have always known that there were no guns, nail bombs petrol bombs or grenades in the hands of the casualties. Citizens were shot for being there.

Bereaved families now have it on record. It needed to be said officially. And Saville has now said it. David Cameron’s repetition of those words, ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’, was eloquent and unprecedented.

So, what now? Prosecutions are hardly the relatives’ priority. But the limits of the Saville report – what happened on that day -  produced a political trap.

Blame now attaches not to the victims but the people who pulled the triggers and who ‘knowingly put forward  false accounts.’

Yet everyone knows that culpability lies with their commanders and the context created by the political and military systems.

Prosecutions of 1 Para squaddies won’t take us any closer to those systems. They won’t answer the question: why were paratroopers known for excessive violence positioned to police a banned civil rights march? Which generals and politicians were talking about shooting civil rights leaders? Why was such talk tolerated? Why was there no redress for socio-economic and political injustice in that place?

We don’t need prosecutions and we probably don’t need another public inquiry to answer these unanswered questions, but we do need another part of the process.

If an obvious forum has not emerged it is not for want of trying to imagine what it might be. It is very difficult. But it is only difficult. It is not impossible.

Professor Bell suggests that the British state could just open the books. The paramilitary organisations, too, could open their books. The government could appoint a custodian of those archives and improvise a process of disclosure.

We can’t close the book if we haven’t opened it. Meanwhile, we cannot exaggerate the iconography of joy and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry’s importance in narrating a new national story.

Big society – small state

Marlboro man meets Russell

Within a couple of weeks of the general election Nick Clegg  staked his political reputation on the coalition not scything Britain with the savagery for which Margaret Thatcher was simultaneously loathed and loved.

He will use his authority ruthlessly, he said, to stop the coalition leaving Britain broken.

He had already swerved into a U turn – beckoned by the Bank of England, he signed up to cuts of £6 billion immediately.

His alibi was a contradiction in terms: ‘progressive cuts’,  and the model promoted by Canada and Sweden.

His  best friends should tell him: this stinks. The scythe is savage; it’s meant to be. Public sector cuts will hurt those with the least – the public sector sector workers, a majority of whom are women, who service us, the public.

Innovation will be starved, research will be pruned,  progressive development will be disabled, green shoots will be trodden down.

Clegg will be undone: his reputation will be ruined, because Britain will be broken.

If anyone profits it will be Cameron’s new Conservatism, if only because the cuts will create the context for Cameron’s ‘Mad Men’ moment: the Big Society.

Cameron conjours a dream in which the Marlboro myth of the big country: solitary cowboy on horse between big sky and craggy landscape segues into Up and its heroic little, loveable Russell. Russell’s allure is that he only wants to be kind -  he needs to get another helpfulness badge and who but a curmudgeon could resist him! He is blessed by indefatiguable curiosity and a talent for empathy.

Russell is, of course, a solitary child. Like Marlboro man – who he’ll never become – Russell belongs nowhere. We are reassured that he is a loved child, whose resilience comes from a good mother – but only after we have witnessed his heroism. His valour flourishes up in the air, up, up and away. Away.

Russell, like Marlboro man, is de-contextualised.

They live in places where there is no society.

Cameron, of course, repudiates the crazy Thatcherite mantra ‘there’s no such thing as society…’ But he is mobilising ‘Big Society’ in the service of anti-statism, against the ‘Big State’ as if the state were the enemy of ‘society’.

Cameron’s Big Society is also de-contextualised. It enlists the rhetoric of community activism whilst erasing its history in Britain.

Like many Big Ideas borrowed from the US to animate New Labour and New Conservatism, they are bereft of time, space and history.

Britain has a long history of community activism, but now its civil society is shrivelling. It is neither apathetic nor under-developed. On the contrary, it is exhausted. It has been angry, its anger has flared to little effect and it has become depressed.

Two examples:

1.    if society is a living, breathing form of intelligent life, than what does it do to its spirit to mobilise the biggest ever public demonstration on its streets only to be ignored? More than a millon people marched against the Iraq war and yet had no impact on the parliamentary outcome of Tony Blair’s war misson. That experience can only yield a kind of depression. It isn’t apathy, its angry and its hopeless.

2.    Sure Start, inspired by feminist stalwarts in the Labour government elected in 1997, promised to repair the anomalous lack of good publicly funded child care in Britain. Its emergence depended on these politicians’ convergence with other interests and agendas within the Labour Cabinet. Sure Start was, therefore, always the subject of multiple and sometimes contradictory pressures.

It innovated a novel structure – high quality provision for children plus engagement with parents needs, not just as parents, but as people, in alliance with sturdy professionals. At their best, Sure Start projects were a model of ‘community development’ that sought to empower localities with ‘action ‘research’. That was a template that flourished in the 1970s, and the best of Sure Start brought together ‘action research’ – finding out what people needed and what worked -  while improvising new alliances between professions, parents, children and their localities.

Sure Start was hobbled, however, by Tony Blair’s political interventions that skewed its mission, and by  a reluctance to roll out the programme as a model for universal child care. That left it vulnerable to Tory scepticism.

So, these  are two  examples disrespect for civil society. In the first, the art of active dissent was disabled by the crushing reaction of Parliament to the movement against war in Iraq. It remains a peculiarity of the British Parliament that its indifference has been matched only by so much blether about the need to ‘listen to people.’

In the second, the dialogue between the state as provider, professionals and parents will be destroyed by the Conservatives: the community development model will not be honoured, provision will not be expanded, indeed it will be scaled down to meet the needs of children in crisis not children in general. Children’s services will not, therefore, be allowed to become the hub of community spaces.

So, the community activism template promoted by the New Conservatives will be a way of NOT doing community development. The notion of a community army may skill up neighbourhood champions, but it will not empower neighbourhoods, nor will public and private capital be invested in economic development.

Millions has already been spent on refurbishment in ailing  neighbourhoods since the Tory Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine introduced City Challenge – a bidding competition for urban regeneration – in the 1980s.

Poor communities have been consulted to the point of exhaustion.  Often their homes have been transferred to the non-state social sector. They may or may not be better managed. Regeneration programmes seem to have had minimal impact on unemployment and economic sustainability.

‘Social renewal’ was predicated on the perception of these neighbourhoods as a ‘social problem.’ They stayed poor because social renewal was not matched by sustainable economic regeneration.

Unless Cameron’s notion of a community army is not to be a kind of Dad’s army – a home guard for the poor , bob a-jobbing – the coalition government will have to deliver a matrix of educational and economic investment. The Tories believe, of course, that the market will do it. But why would the market do for Marlboro cowboy and little Russell (not to mention their sisters) what it hasn’t done in Belfast, Glasgow, Tyneside or Hastings or Rhyll for the past 30 years?

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