Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr David Bolton


  1.  Discussions about how best to handle the past have been gathering pace with various institutions etc. considering the issue. The idea of a healing and cathartic Commission or Forum to address "outstanding matters" has been around in various forms but with no clear view as to what precisely such a process would address, how it would be done and whether any initiative would in fact make a contribution to progress at this stage.


  2.  This means different things to different interests. For some it means very specific outstanding judicial matters. For others it has to do with a wider sense of "justice"—sometimes not very specific (and which at its root might mean something else other than somebody been arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned). In that connection, for some it is a psychological matter to do with acknowledgement, (perhaps compensation), the need to see someone else punished or held account, to be remembered (or have one's loved one remembered) in some way as one who has suffered, served, etc.

  3.  For others it has to do with relationships and the need to establish new (for the first time) or heal broken relationships, or is seen as a spiritual matter—to do with our relationship with God and each other.

  4.  Clarity is needed. A distinction needs to be drawn between the state's need for formal matters to be dealt with (ie judicial matters) and the possible objectives and benefits of any initiative over and above such goals.


  5.  There are a number of interests that to one degree or another have an interest in seeing the past addressed. These include:

    —  Some of those affected by violence.

    —  Governments to enable the political process to progress.

    —  Political parties to the extent that they see the victims issue as requiring attention.

    —  Business—to promote a positive image of NI and to create improved conditions for investment and stability.

    —  Some of the churches-faith communities for religious reasons.

    —  The community relations community.

    —  Other social partners.


  6.  To embark on any measure to address the past we need a number of key tests against which proposals could be examined. These could include:

    (a)  Any initiatives will make a distinctive and positive contribution to progress.

    (b)  They will secure specific and agreed outcomes aimed at helping those who have been most directly affected by violence.

    (c)  They will enhance relationships and trust.

    (d)  They will secure sufficient support and engagement across the community.

    (e)  They will not be misused for political or sectional advantage.

    (f)  They will be cost effective.

  These are challenging tests.

  7.  At this stage in the political process when most of the key features of political change are in place, any initiatives will require the voluntary engagement of individuals and organisations. It is probably doubtful that the engagement in a collective quasi-judicial forum of for example, paramilitaries, security forces and governments could be secured in sufficient measure to produce a positive effect.

  8.  Clarity on what it is intended or requires to be addressed, is needed to assist in determining what could and should be done. There appear to be at least three main areas of "outstanding matters". These are:

    (a)  Justice issues—which takes a number of forms for different parts of the community.

    (b)  Acknowledgement, recognition and remembrance issues which likewise means different things for different groups etc.

    (c)  Health and Welfare issues—which relates to the direct personal consequences of violence (pain, disability, grief, trauma etc) and related direct impacts on personal opportunity and development.

  9.  Each of these requires different responses and the nature of the response will be determined by the capacity of the community to address these issues.

  10.  It is not likely therefore that one single initiative will be able to address all these issues at once. Indeed any effort to do so could flounder as it would be very complicated.


  11.  Justice issues produce different and powerful responses depending upon who or what interest is calling for justice. Some justice claims might be underpinned by political motives or the desire for political outcomes. Some claims represent the desire for fairness, clarity or "truth", accountability and the continuing desire to advocate on behalf of those who have been killed, for instance. Also, the conflict has been more complicated than is often presented or assumed. It is clearly more intricate than seeing the conflict in terms of republicans and loyalists, or by including state security service as a third party.

  12.  The challenge of addressing justice issues is well known. Again perspective plays a part in determining what requires a justice response and what institutions and processes are legitimate in attending to such matters. Political negotiations have led to some pragmatic decisions to hold public enquiries. Whilst solving one set of problems such decisions disenfranchise many others who feel that their experiences of injustice are being ignored. These have to do with for example, the 1,800 or so unsolved murders.

  13.  It might be helpful to separate the states' objectives in carrying out (or reviewing) murder enquiries and to see what it is that families would like. We hear that some people do not want someone behind bars for the murder of their family member. So when such people say they want justice, what is it exactly that they are seeking? Processes that facilitate the sharing of information, explanation and openness about the difficulties in pursuing cases so long after the events took place might be more helpful for some, than formal judicial processes.

  14.  Some of those affected directly by violence might not want to be involved in any initiative as they have resolved the matter or reached an inner acceptance of what has happened. Others might have created new lives for themselves and the past is in the past. A widow remarried for many years and with a second family, might find dealing with the past in this context unhelpful.

  15.  Some feel that the systems of justice are in place and no other action is required other than the due process of the law. They feel entitled to this and anything else would be less than they (or their loved one) deserved. The implications of this are that any alternative process, which for example addresses the outstanding cases, has to have gravitas. It also has to pass the human rights test.


  16.  Acknowledgement, recognition and remembrance are related to the significance that people and communities place on their experiences of bereavement and violence. This area might also be relevant to people's experience of unfairness or to how people feel thy have been `used' for political or other purposes. One problem with processes of acknowledgement and remembrance is that they can have a zero-sum effect (to acknowledge one is to dis-acknowledge another). Related to this is the issue of inclusiveness. Some of those affected by violence will feel more comfortable than others in having their experiences and loss acknowledged and remembered along side those with whom they have strong differences and whose part in the conflict they see very differently from their own part. The challenge is to find ways in which reverently and with due respect and sensitivity, the community can acknowledge, remember etc. whilst respecting the individual's perspective on what is the most appropriate way to remember etc.

  17.  One frequently used and talked about initiative is to facilitate story telling and the establishment of archives. Much has been done in this field already. A number of such archives exist, usually confined to the group and locality in which the experiences were gathered. Localised and group initiated story collections have their place (and for some this is where their stories should remain).

  18.  Stories work because they are of the person; they are authentic insights into what a person has experienced, into the consequences of violence on them and their family. They have a levelling effect in that, whilst we might not agree or identify with the story teller's political view of they world, we can recognise and appreciate the human experiences of loss, trauma, disappointment, hope and triumph.

  19.  As personal histories these are special human stories. Should these not have a more central and honoured place in our landscape of remembrance? And what about those who have yet to tell their stories and those whose stories are yet, too difficult to tell? Is there not therefore, a place for a central collection of experiences that is granted respect in the process of collection and in the way in which stories are preserved and honoured in future generations?

  20.  To help us to remember well, it would be helpful if agreement could be reached for example, on the use and placement of memorials, and of other events and symbols that represent the experiences of a community or individual or family. This is not to stifle, or to neutralise remembrance, but to allow it to happen in ways that contribute to the greater good.


  21.  With regard to health and welfare issues, the focus is on those needs and outcomes that are directly related to experience of violence and which can be addressed through developing policy and services.

  22.  Progress in policy, in services and in other intiatives has been made. More needs to be done however, to ensure that the needs of those affected by violence are being addressed, and we should expect that for some time to come people will present with health and wider welfare related needs that have their roots in the violence.

  23.  Strategic health and well-being promoting measures would contribute to progress by directly addressing health and well-being needs and by providing a non-partisan analysis of needs and solutions.

  24.  We also need to be thinking about the needs of children. We know from the experience of those affected in childhood by abuse how devastating the effects can be on the adult. We need to be planning for these needs both in children and adult services.


  25.  Clearly major challenges in community relationships remain, focussed on the interface areas, but present in wider society in various forms. It would seem we need to put as much energy and imagination into addressing relationships as we have put in to the political project, and as we might put into addressing the past. The challenge of "A Shared Future" remains with us.

  26.  Our political discourse is still very combative and fragmented. It is important that politicians model good relationships and consideration.

  27.  There is the feeling in the wider community that ordinary people no longer have a role to play. For reasons we all understand, politics has been at the forefront of change, but this has disengaged the contribution and interest of ordinary people, or caused them to avoid facing the need for change or to recognise that they too have a part to play. As each political crisis unfolded since 1998, increasingly they were solved by negotiations between Governments and parties and the wider civic contribution seemed irrelevant and at times unwanted.


  28.  Inevitably Governments work and think in terms of policy, processes, measurable outcomes etc, all important and well tried mechanisms for delivering progress and change. Is it possible however, to draw upon the creativity and imagination, upon the instinctive good will and human compassion and understanding of people, to bring about change? How might such a potential source of energy be enabled to make its contribution?

  29.  There is a need for the evolution of shared histories, which for example would ultimately be found in school curricula. With honest language and appraisals of history—this is a critical one for future generations.


  30.  There is something about a mature community being able to attend to the needs and concerns of its members in ways that are able to acknowledge its own collective shortcomings in the tragedy that has befallen us all, in ways that are forward looking, anxious to make progress. There is something about being able to do these things in ways that are not intended to cause affront and where the last pound of flesh is not required.

October 2004

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