December Books 15) The Truth Commissioner, by David Park

When this book was published in 2008, it must have seemed safely theoretical: the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission for Northern Ireland had never found much favour with any of the political decision-makers, and there was no reason to think it would change. Now, I understand that the creation of some such mechanism is actually one of the crunch points in the current political negotiations led by Richard Haass, so David Park's somewhat sideways look at the Troubles is going to hit closer to home than he perhaps expected.

I'm going to be personal about this. The one person who is most responsible for this change of circumstance is Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was shot dead by he IRA one Sunday morning in 1984 as she and her father, a magistrate, were leaving church (he was badly wounded in the attack, but survived, and died exactly four years ago today). During the Troubles, both Republican and Loyalist terrorists would occasionally target their victims at church, which tended to provoke more than the usual amount of revulsion from anyone with any ounce of humanity. The Travers attack was more than usually upsetting for my own social group, because they were Catholics, and had been at Mass at the ultra-respectable St Brigid's on Derryvolgie Avenue; and for us middle-class South Belfast Catholics, the shooting made it very clear that the IRA were not on our side. Mary Travers, who was training to be a teacher, had done a student placement in my school. Her brother later became a friend of mine at Cambridge. The parish priest, Ambrose Macaulay, was a friend of my parents. As it happened I attended Mass at St Brigid's precisely a week after the shooting, one of the tensest religious ceremonies I can ever remember participating in (I can't remember why I was there, normally we were either Derriaghy or Aghaderg). If our own supposed side were happy to take pot-shots at the most successful members of the community, not caring about destroying other family members, where the hell did that leave us with regard to the Loyalists or the British? Lots of people had it worse than we did during the Troubles; but none of us had it easy.

Anyway, the clock moves on; and the only person convicted of involvement in the Travers shooting (not one of the gunmen, but a female accomplice) was appointed by Sinn Féin to a particular political patronage position in 2011 after the last Assembly election. There followed a very raw political controversy, led by Ann Travers, with the immediate result that new legislation was passed to prevent people with terrorist convictions getting that sort of job; and the net result has been to make unviable the pacto de olvido approach which had hitherto seemed dominant (this of course at a time when the original pacto de olvido is also fraying). Combined with the dispute over how often particular flags should fly over Belfast City Hall, we have the current Haass process, which apparently will recommend setting up a new Independent Commission for the Recovery/Retrieval of Information, rather similar to the Truth Commission of David Park's novel. So what seemed a slightly stretched political fantasy when published almost six years ago turns out to be oddly prophetic.

Having made that lengthy excursion, the book is quite engaging in a masculine sort of way – there are four alternating viewpoint characters, the two IRA men who shot a young informer many years ago, the informer's police handler, and the titular Commissioner who is drawn into this particular story by his own complex family dynamics. I found a number of details a bit jarring, particularly with regard to the internationally appointed commissioner himself (I guess that's a realm I move in more than the author does), but it's a fine character study of four men coming to terms with the damage they have done to themselves, to each other, to the women in their lives and to the long-ago victim. There are no winners, and perhaps that is the moral.

One thought on “December Books 15) The Truth Commissioner, by David Park

  1. Fully understand that everyone on the island of Ireland was, shall we say, otherwise engaged in 1921. But interesting that I implicitly assumed that a GB-NI synchronised census was more important than a RoI/NI one. Clearly I am a “closet Unionist.” Which, based on the discussion on Slugger O’Toole, qualifies me to join APNI. So no bad thing there…

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