Memorandum submitted by the Corrymeela
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
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 truthbecause 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.