Reality but no reconciliation

Observations on truth

During the BBC's daring truth and reconciliation encounters, hosted by Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Hackett kept asking the iconic loyalist killer Michael Stone about "the files" that were, it seems, her husband's death warrant in Northern Ireland.

Why couldn't she see them, she asked. The answer takes us to the very heart of the strength and weakness of the series Facing the Truth.

This was reality television like we never see it - human beings living with great grief, unsoothed, lending their pain to something bigger: the effort to sort this thing out. They sat together with a guardian angel, the most popular priest on the planet, Archbishop Tutu, in a beautiful room where they were joined by men who had killed their people - stoical, contemplative soldiers.

One family exemplified the hardship of just sitting still, holding a gaze, asking a relevant question, speaking a sentence worth saying. What on earth would that be? The father's face seemed to be pulled away from the soldier as if by a magnetic force. The mother's face was ripped in sorrow. The young son, curious, and the daughter, transfixed, stared at the paramilitary man, listening to every word he said, watching every flick of his eyebrow, every breath in his cheeks.

The soldiers, all of them dignified, confounded the blithe contempt that the 30-year war has delivered to these men as the people who were to blame: low life, subhuman killers. Well, here

they were, taking it, dangerous

men deciding not to be.

We learned something that challenged the interpretation of that war, this side of the water - of Paddies doing what they do: killing each other - and something about their non-equivalence. The republican soldiers' mission was to kill the British state that was denying their right to be human. The loyalist soldiers' mission was to kill Catholics.

One of the loyalists, Michael Stone, a prolific killer, insisted that his targets were on "the files" - and so they were implicated. One such was the husband of Sylvia Hackett and the brother of Roddy: Dermot Hackett. He was murdered nearly 19 years ago by Stone, whose bravado was memorialised in footage of his astounding attack on the mass funeral at Milltown Cemetery. One of his victims was Tommy McErlean, whose mother, Sally, was one of the fabled good women of West Belfast, a pied piper who organised youth clubs in Divis Flats, where there were probably "files" on everyone.

Sylvia Hackett wouldn't have it: her man was just a person, a Catholic. Stone insisted on "the files". They were the source of his legitimacy.

But "the files" took us to the limits of these encounters, to the absent presence - the state itself. British military intelligence and the Royal Ulster Constabulary created those files. Stone's safe passage to and from that cemetery was organised by the RUC. Stone couldn't give Sylvia Hackett the files. The RUC, MI5 and Downing Street won't give her the files, either. Stone's encounter with the Hacketts will not be replicated by the army officers, the Special Branch personnel, the security commanders and politicians who sanctioned Stone and the death squads.

Truth and reconciliation processes depend upon the sponsorship of states. They depend on states subjecting themselves to scrutiny, to opening their files, and in so doing, acknowledging their own role as contributors to the conflict, or rather, as the cause of the conflict.

The British state won't surrender itself to these relatives. It won't hazard the encounters that the men who killed their loved ones dared to enter. That is why there is no truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.