Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Corrymeela Community

  Dealing with the past has been rising rapidly up the Northern Ireland political agenda and the UK Government has been indicating that it wishes to consult widely on establishing something like a truth and reconciliation commission.

  This proposed initiative comes after the publication of the Cory Report which called for public inquiries into four controversial murders which may or may not involve State collusion. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry is also ongoing and has consumed more than £l00 million and counting. There are real issues about the cost of lawyer-dependent public inquiries and the police ability to meet the demands for re-investigation into 1,800 unsolved murders during the "troubles". This is the context in which the Government urgently wants to find another way. There are however, other important issues, issues around healing, justice and truth in particular.


It has been argued that it is important for a public account to be rendered of what happened and who was responsible. Wrong-doing and injustice are publicly acknowledged. Building a trust-worthy peace, it has been contended, requires honest discourse about the past. Thus, Truth Commissions have been established in such countries as South Africa, Chile, El Salvador and Guatamala.

  Of central importance is that these Truth Commissions were official attempts at truth-learning and they have tended to focus, although not exclusively, on the misdeeds of the State. They arise from, or are part of, a peace process and often incorporated political compromises. Thus, in South Africa, amnesty was given to perpetrators in return for public disclosure. The perpetrators were held to account but they were not punished if they disclosed what they had done. Signs of contrition or apologies were not required, even though they did take place on some occasions. The victims were able publicly to tell their story, and for some of the families of victims there was the possibility of finding out what happened to their loved ones. Through these processes the victims and their families were given respect and the possibility of the restoration of personal and civil dignity. A process such as this may be sufficient for many people to put the past behind them. What was given up, however, was the possibility of punitive justice against the perpetrators. This was not uncontroversial. Some victims or their families were totally opposed to the granting of amnesty and challenged this in court.

  It may be that a public account of what has happened and who was responsible can be rendered although it should not be assumed. However, rendering a public account of what has happened and who was responsible does not free us from conflicting interpretations, clashing memories, etc, about the past, or even disagreement about what the conflict has been about. Focusing on specific events may bring its own distortions and community anger. (Why this event? Why not this one? Etc.) "Truths" about the past may continue to be disputed. Nor does truth-telling necessarily lead to healing and reconciliation (certainly not at once). Indeed, truth can be used as a weapon directed against political opponents and as a means to claim superiority in a political struggle. It can open up old wounds and reinforce division. What may be hoped for by rendering a public account is that the range of permissible "truths" may be narrowed and that particular lies, silences, fiction, myths and denials are effectively challenged. After the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission no one could honestly deny that apartheid was a monstrous crime.


  As has been said earlier: Truth Commissions are part of political processes and more particularly political agreements. They are part of an agreed clearing up process after an agreement. Do we have a stable political agreement in Northern Ireland that allows us to engage in a structured clearing up process?

  By 1998 one in seven of the Northern Ireland population reported being a victim of violence; one in five had a member of a family killed or injured; and one in four had been caught up in an explosion. There are 1,800 unsolved murders. These are the dimensions of the potential task.

  Nearly 90% of the murders in Northern Ireland were committed by paramilitaries. Can a process be constructed that brings them into the public arena to talk about their misdeeds? Will they? Obviously incentives can be given (see below) but any process that focuses mainly on the misdeeds of the State would be unfair. Any truth process must be seen by those involved and by the public to be even-handed: a perception that special treatment is being given to one side or the other, or to paramilitaries as opposed to members of the security forces would only increase the problems in achieving cross-community consensus which is a sine qua non of such a process.

  There may be need for incentives to secure the co-operation of all sides; that means in practice that the threat of future prosecution may have to be withdrawn in exchange for the revelation of the truth. Justice may have to be given up for the sake of truth. Is this acceptable?


  The metaphor of healing is often applied to post-violence situations. The healing paradigm casts the consequence of collective violence in terms of trauma, sickness, brokenness, hurt and pain. A whole society has been gravely wounded and the goal is recovery and the restoration to "health". One way this healing paradigm is used is in relation to the healing power of truth.

  The belief in the healing power of truth was at the heart of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which was established with the hope that it would lead to social catharsis: the revelation of truth about the past would bring reconciliation. But as the Israeli philosopher Avishal Margalit says "memory breathes revenge as often as it breathes reconciliation and the hope of reaching catharsis through liberated memories might turn out to be an illusion".


  Dealing with the past is likely to be a process rather than an event, and it is likely to take generations. It does not seem likely that simple forgetting is an option. For instance, issues in relation to France's actions in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, once thought buried by "acts of oblivion" are now creeping out into the public domain. At the same time we do not seem able to bear too much truth—because the truth can as easily destroy as liberate. We need a care-taking honesty. And timing is important. "There is a season for everything. . . , a time for keeping silent, a time for speaking" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). The issue is: Is this the time for a structured process like a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland. Personally, I rather think not, although the question of how to deal with the past will not go away. We caunot simply draw a line under the past, even if this was desirable. Instead, we should, at this time, concentrate on a piecemeal approach: practical help for victims, a Victims Commissioner, reviewing the 2000 "cold cases", with a view to providing families with information, promoting the development of "safe spaces" where victims can tell their stories and so on.

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