The trouble with Troubles

To establish peace, different sides in a conflict must learn the art of compromise. Trust, tolerance and understanding are key tenets in the peace process; from tolerance comes the understanding as to why there are differences between groups and with this understanding, peace building becomes possible.

This was the key message conveyed by York University Chancellor Peter Cory at the annual John Holmes Lecture at York’s Glendon College. Cory, a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge, spoke about his experience in Northern Ireland as an independent investigator into allegations of official collusion in six murder cases. Cory’s lecture, titled “The trouble with Troubles: reflections on Northern Ireland”, took place March 7.

Right: Chancellor Peter Cory (left) with Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts

York’s chancellor was welcomed by Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts, who provided an overview of the history of the lecture series and the man who inspired it: the late John W. Holmes, O.C., Canadian diplomat, writer, administrator and professor of international relations at Glendon from 1971 to 1981.

Cory was then introduced by Glendon international studies Professor Stanislav Kirschbaum, a well-known scholar in Canadian foreign and defence policy. “If the Honorable Peter Cory led an incredibly active life before retirement, the term ‘retirement’ takes on an entirely new meaning when you consider what he has been doing since,” said Kirschbaum. “In addition to the post of chancellor of York University which he accepted in 2004, he has held a number of appointments as a provincial and federal commissioner. It is one of these activities which we felt fits admirably with the vocation of this lecture series. His appointment as commissioner by the governments of Britain and Northern Ireland in 2002 to investigate and report on six high profile murder cases which are significant to all of the governments involved and to the peace process in Northern Ireland.”

 Left: Glendon international studies Professor Stanislav Kirschbaum

The Troubles refers to a period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland which began with the civil rights marches in the late 1960s and continued until the political resolution contained in the 1998 Good Friday Accord. In one of the darkest periods in Irish history, more than 4,000 people were killed, most of them civilians.

“It was a very bitter war, ” Cory noted in his lecture, backgrounding his mission. “With the Good Friday Accord, boundaries were recognized. There was a period for about two years when nothing happened following the accord and violence broke out again. In late 2001, there was a further accord signed between the two governments that set out terms of reference for whomever was going to do the work to make the accords successful.

Right: Cory outlines the details of the six murders he investigated

“The two governments agreed on several things, that an independent judge would look at six murder cases that had a very high profile in the country and whether allegations of collusion between the murderers and government organizations including MI5 and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were evident,” said Cory. “Keep in mind that one of the duties of any government is to protect its citizens.”

In May 2002, the governments of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland appointed Cory as commissioner and asked that he investigate the six killings, which involved allegations of collusion between members of the security forces and loyalist or republican paramilitaries. Cory conducted a thorough investigation of the allegations of collusion in six murder cases. He looked into the murders of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, who died in an ambush in 1989, and human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, who was shot repeatedly by masked gunmen in 1989. He also investigated the deaths of Lord Justice and Lady Maurice Gibson, who were killed in a bomb blast in 1987, and Robert Hamill, a resident of Portadown, Ireland who was beaten to death by a mob in 1997. Cory examined the deaths of Irish attorney Rosemary Nelson who died in a bomb blast in 1997, and loyalist volunteer force member Billy “The Rat” Wright, who was killed by gunmen in 1997 while serving a sentence in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.

Cory then provided a poignant review of each of the murders. Peppering his lecture with anecdotes that illustrated his horror at the circumstances surrounding each of the killings, Cory also included snippets of humour including forgetting his security PIN number and the unusual habits of his security officers who accompanied him everywhere he went. 

He spoke with eloquence about his findings and of his frustration over the governments’ stonewalling that followed the submission of his report on the six murders in October 2003. Cory sent his report to the governments of Ireland and the UK urging judicial inquiries into several of the cases. Cory’s report on the killings of Finucane, Nelson, Hamill, and Wright was released to the UK and Irish governments and he confirmed that he had found evidence of official collusion in each of the cases. He also recommended that the Irish government conduct an independent inquiry into the murders of Breen and Buchanan. Cory did not find evidence of official collusion in the murder of the Gibsons. Following the completion of his report, Cory expected his findings would be published in December 2003, as outlined in his initial agreement based on the second accord. However, the British government requested that its publication be delayed.

In January 2004, annoyed with the continued delays, Cory went directly to the families of the victims and informed them of his findings. In April 2004, the UK authorities finally published Cory’s reports but refused at that time to announce a public inquiry into the cases.

Left: Cory talks about the consequences of further delays into the public inquiries as he responds to questions from a member of the audience

“These were brutal killings and I still have nightmares about them. There are no good guys or bad guys, there is just a degree of viciousness and cruelty,” said Cory.

“There were supposed to be public inquiries following my report,” he said. “The work was being accepted, there should have been a public inquiry so that people would know what happened.

Frustrated, Cory explained that new legislation passed in the wake of his report would continue to delay the inquiries. “The public inquiry is important to achieving peace and understanding and it may have gone down the drain, although I hope not,” he said.

“What has it all come to? Well, thank goodness we are Canadian and live in a country where there is tolerance and understanding,” said Cory. “From tolerance comes understanding of differences and an acceptance of these differences which leads us to then accomplish more, and as a society, Canada functions well. We can never let suspicion and hatred get to the point where it is so troubling and evident as it was in Northern Ireland.”