WHAT is more important: justice or peace? Answer in 30 seconds,
please, as one radio presenter required in one of those
preposterous debates that the Today programme on Radio 4
is always starting, and then realising that it does not have the
time to do properly, if it is to fit in the next item on
The issue is taken more seriously in Northern Ireland, where the
Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, was recently released by the
police, after being questioned for four days about one of the most
horrendous murders in the decades-long civil war euphemistically
known as the Troubles.
In 1972, Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow and mother of ten
children, was dragged from her home by 12 IRA men, in front of her
children, and executed as an informer. Afterwards, her 11-year-old
son was tied up, hooded, beaten with sticks, and told that he would
be killed if he ever revealed the names of those who had taken his
mother, whose body was only found 31 years later.
What has reopened this wound has been an oral history project at
Boston College, in the United States, which has interviewed former
paramilitaries. It promised not to publish the material until after
the terrorists' death. But a book containing the accounts of two
who have since died led the Northern Ireland police to take court
action in the US to order the handover of all the material.
Many make a category mistake here. The raw material of history
is not the same thing as information that would constitute evidence
in a court of law. Its candid confessional material inevitably
includes hearsay, colour, mood, and deeper communal psychologies,
which are not admissible evidence. Four decades on, reportsare
subject to the fallibility and embroidery of memory. They are
vehicles for self-justification and score-settling. And dead
witnesses cannot be cross-examined. Even so, one former IRA man,
Ivor Bell, aged 77, has been charged with aiding and abetting
murder as a result. And Mr Adams was arrested and questioned,
although not charged.
There is nothing new in the tension between justice and peace.
The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness reminded us of that in a more
substantial radio discussion on Start the Week, prompted
by his reworking of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles for a new opera,
Thebans. He has shifted to the centre of the story the
dilemma posed by Antigone in her clash with the ruler, Creon, over
the burial of her brother. It embodies the same conflict between an
individual who needs justice, and a community which requires a
settlement for peace.
What is interesting is that, for Sophocles, Creon represented a
necessary modernity, and Antigone the vestige of some primitive
individualism. Our own age seems to have inverted those values.
Today, the loudest cries - and most heart-rending in the case of
the ten orphaned McConville children - are for justice for the
victims. And yet the political reality is that, as a society, we
have already made a judgement in which, to use the words of Thabo
Mbeki, in post-apartheid South Africa, justice for individuals
"cannot be allowed to trump peace" for the collective.
This throws up all manner of ideological tensions; for the
common good is not the same as the good of the majority: it
requires the protection of minorities. But it does assert the need
for balance, especially in a community which is still an uneasy
coalition in tension, and where empathies remain partial. "Let
justice be done, though the heavens fall," is a deontological
delusion. Facing up to this is part of the painful political
compromise that was not called the Good Friday Agreement for