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Sinn Féin’s Troubles apology may be flawed, but silence from London has been deafening

‘Some were terrible, some were essentially excuses,’ says Prof Kieran McEvoy of the Apologies, Abuses and Dealing with the Past project

Three hundred apologies about killings, bombings or actions during the Troubles are held in an archive in Queen’s University Belfast by a team who has looked for nearly a decade at the role they can play in dealing with past harms.

“Some were terrible, some were essentially excuses,” said Prof Kieran McEvoy, who leads the Apologies, Abuses and Dealing with the Past project, along with Dr Anna Bryson and Prof Anne-Marie McAlinden.

A few “gold star” past offerings hold pride of place and are the ones most cited in the decades afterwards by academics – especially the carefully constructed statements from loyalist paramilitaries in October 1994 when they announced their ceasefire.

Everything for that moment was carefully prepared, unusually so: the words uttered by the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association and the Red Hand Commando had been through dozens of drafts.


“In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 20 years, abject and true remorse,” declared Gusty Spence, a loyalist figurehead convicted of the sectarian killing of Catholic barman Peter Ward in Belfast in 1966. “No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict,” said Spence, who had been carefully selected to be the voice of the statement.

Following scores of apologies in the 30 years since, Gusty Spence’s words, curiously perhaps, are the ones still most likely to be recalled by people brought together in focus groups by Queen’s University Belfast’s “apologies” researchers.

Most especially, according to the research carried out since by the university, the Spence apology struck home because it was volunteered, it was delivered by someone who carried the sins of the past, and it was heartfelt.

The interim Kenova Report published on Friday by Jon Boutcher, chief constable of the PSNI, sought a full apology from both the IRA and the British government for the sins of the Troubles. Such an apology in the IRA’s case should cover “the abduction, torture and murder” of alleged informers and the “disgraceful” ostracisation of their families that was orchestrated by the paramilitary organisation, he said.

In a prepared statement issued in the wake of the publication of the report, Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill said her “heartfelt” thoughts were with the families of victims. “I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict, and that is without exception. Regrettably the path cannot be changed or cannot be undone,” she said.

In her words, clearly reflecting the thought Sinn Féin had given to handling the report’s publication, party president Mary Lou McDonald also used the “heartfelt thoughts” phrase, saying those thoughts were with people still feeling “anguish, hurt and loss”.

Neither statement dealt specifically with Mr Boutcher’s demand for a specific apology for specific actions: “That is the obvious critique [of the statements],” Prof McEvoy said. Set against that yardstick, the words do not go far enough, though the passage of time means, inevitably, that apologies given in 2024, or later on, will never have the immediacy of ones given by those directly involved.

However, there are times when later actors can atone for the past – former British prime minister David Cameron’s House of Commons Bloody Sunday words being one. He accepted without equivocation that the deaths in Derry were “unjustified and unjustifiable”, that British paratroopers had fired on fleeing unarmed civilians, and that they shot and killed an already wounded man.

An apology has power only if it is true, however, and is seen as such. “That is the challenge for republicans, since killing informers was literally seen as a justified response to British efforts to penetrate the IRA,” Prof McEvoy said.

Even today, the stigma attached to informers, often wrongly, remains in republican heartlands, affecting families who had to bury their dead, when they had a body to bury, “in private funerals, early in the morning, with few there”, he said.

The shadows left on families are clearly to be seen. Kevin Winters, the solicitor who represents 12 of the families affected by the Kenova Report, appeared at a press conference alone to offer his reaction, minus the presence on camera of relatives of the dead. The families, most of whom came from republican areas, still felt “very uncomfortable” about being in the public domain, he said.

However, it was always unlikely that Sinn Féin figures would go further now in their challenge “to stretch their own constituency”, given the anger caused by the British government’s legacy legislation, said Dr Anna Bryson.

“It’s really hard to underestimate the levels of hurt, anger and frustration families feel that their hopes of getting truth and justice have been dealt such a body blow,” she said.

In a way, Kenova has made the situation worse, since its findings “strongly hint” at the information “that can come to light as a result of proper, thorough work”, she said.

Strikingly in conversations across the landscape, it is Michelle O’Neill’s statement, not Mary Lou McDonald’s, that has grabbed attention.

In Dr Bryson’s view, Ms O’Neill spoke out quickly with “an admission of responsibility for the harms”, with a focus on such tragedies not happening again. Equally, she had the necessary standing to make her statement, though she could not speak directly for the Provisional IRA members involved, said the academic.

“There is a limit to what an apology can do, it isn’t a panacea. It’s part of a much broader process,” she said, adding that they do have value even if they fall short. “I think it does. I think it’s a bona fide effort to address hurt. But it’s for families to judge whether or not, and to what extent a statement has value.”

However flawed, Sinn Féin has put statements out, compared with the silence from London faced with a report by a senior British official that reeks of distrust of his own system.

Listing the failed, or far-from-perfect inquiries of the past, including Stalker, Stevens, Blelloch and others, Mr Boutcher warned that obstruction heightened reputational damage. “It is abundantly clear that agencies of the state involved in dealing with the Troubles have made decisions not to disclose information that should have been passed to legacy investigations, and have permitted a culture of delay and obstruction.”

Previous legacy investigations had listed past sins, he said. “This should not happen, particularly where grounds exist to indicate the state was complicit in or turned a blind eye to serious criminality.”

Today, a new waltz is set to begin, with the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) led by Sir Desmond Morgan. Despite huge efforts by the Conservatives, it no longer has the power to grant conditional amnesties following the Belfast High Court’s decision to “disapply” that section of the legacy legislation.

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