Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Patricia Lundy (University of Ulster, Jordanstown) and Dr Mark McGovern (Edge Hill College of HE, Ormskirk)


  A submission based on a Report prepared for the Community Relations Council (NI) (2004) and a Survey of Attitudes towards Truth and Justice issues to be conducted as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) 2005.


  This submission is based on ongoing research conducted over the last six years by the authors on community approaches to truth-telling as part of post-conflict transition in Northern Ireland. Internationally truth and reconciliation processes have become central to dealing with the legacies of the past in violently divided societies. However, there has been little or no work carried out to assess the impact and outcomes of such processes. It is within this context that the research findings presented here, based upon an assessment of the impact, value and benefits of community-based truth-telling, represent an internationally unique contribution to the debate on post-conflict mechanisms for dealing with the past. In addition, the authors are currently undertaking a Northern Ireland-wide survey of attitudes towards truth commissions. This is the first such survey carried out anywhere in the world prior to the setting up of such a process. The findings are also based on research conducted on international experiences of truth-telling and post-conflict transition in a number of countries including; Guatemala, Chile, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

  There have therefore been two key research initiatives:

    —  The authors conducted research assessing the values, impact and benefits of community-based truth-telling for conflict resolution between 2003-04 on behalf of the Community Relations Council (NI). This research focused on a case study of Ardoyne Commemoration Project (ACP) a community-based truth-telling initiative conducted between 1998-2002. The authors worked with the ACP in the collation and publication of the testimonies of the relatives and friends of the 99 people from Ardoyne, North Belfast, killed by the various parties to the conflict between 1969-98 (Ardoyne Commemoration Project (2002) Ardoyne: The Untold Truth, Belfast, Beyond the Pale Publications). Over 300 interviews were carried out for the work of the ACP. The assessment research involved an examination of the views of a number of key respondent groups on what contribution community-based "truth-telling" might play in post-conflict transition. These groups included those who participated in the project, the wider Ardoyne community and representatives of relevant victims, human rights and community organisations within both the mainly nationalist and mainly unionist communities. Approximately 50 in-depth interviews were carried out for this research. This work forms the main source for the findings presented in this submission. A full report is due to be published in January 2005 (Lundy, P and McGovern, M (2005) Community, "Truth-telling" and Conflict Resolution, Community Relations Council, Belfast).

    —  The authors are also responsible for a module in the upcoming Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT, 2005) which will explore attitudes towards a possible Truth Commission for Northern Ireland. The NILT is carried out under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Social and Political Archive (ARK) and is the most important Northern Ireland-wide social attitude survey carried out annually. Internationally, this will be the first ever survey conducted on a national basis on attitudes to a truth commission as part of a consultation process prior to the instigation of a mechanism for dealing with the past.


  The findings outlined below derive mainly from the research carried out to assess the values, benefits and outcomes of community-based "truth-telling" initiatives as part of a strategy of post-conflict transition for Northern Ireland. This work involved interviewing members of the project (4), relatives who provided their testimonies (30), representatives of the wider Ardoyne community (6) and spokespersons of both mainly nationalist (6) and mainly unionist (6) victims and community organisations. The representatives of mainly unionist groups generally came from communities bordering the interfaces with Ardoyne. The areas identified below represent the main points of concern identified in the research.

Acknowledgement and Recognition

    —  Recognition was seen by those who gave testimony to the ACP as its most important outcome.

    —  Key themes included: space for individual story, recording and placing in the public realm previously excluded voices, confronting a previous lack of recognition.

    —  Recognition was linked to acknowledgement, accountability and the equality of victimhood.

    —  The Restoration of dignity through recognition was seen as particularly important for two groups of relatives: victims of state violence and the families of alleged informers.

    —  A limitation of storytelling as a form of recognition was also identified in relation to the lack of accountability such a process could afford, particularly in terms of the delivery of justice for the relatives of victims of state violence.

Therapeutic or Non-therapeutic Nature of the Process

    —  There were contradictory responses as to whether the process carried out by the ACP was therapeutic or not.

    —  Giving testimony was clearly an emotional experience but most respondents argued that, on balance, they found the chance to "speak out" at least necessary and, at best, therapeutic.

    —  Therapeutic value derived from a number of things: that someone was willing to listen to their individual experience in an interview, that those experiences then appeared in print under their control, and that the public nature of the launch of the book represented a public "coming together" of the community.

    —  Some argued that "healing" and "closure" could not be divorced from questions of "justice" and "accountability".

    —  A minority of respondents (more prevalent amongst mainly unionist interviewees) were critical of the therapeutic value of "truth-telling". A number suggested that "healing" was a lifelong process. Others, more critical still, argued that it was better to leave people to rely on their already established coping strategies.

    —  Ethical issues were raised concerning the potential of "truth-telling" leading to second order traumatisation.


    —  There was virtually universal agreement that any truth-telling process, community-based or otherwise, had to be as inclusive as possible.

    —  Mainly nationalist respondents stressed two elements to inclusivity; as a means to tackle a prevailing society-wide "hierarchy of victimhood", that denied equality to victims of state violence in particular; the inclusion of families of victims killed as alleged informers. Most respondents within supported both these views on the basis of the principle of equality.

    —  For mainly unionist respondents inclusiveness was also seen as key though other issues were also raised. These included; sense of anger that some experiences were seen as having not been included in the work of the ACP (ie of Ardoyne unionists), the greater problems that exist around the issue of inclusivity within the unionist community because of (what virtually all of them saw as a problematic) distinction made between "innocent" and "non-innocent" victims.

Participation, Ownership and Control

    —  Community participation was seen as the single most important aspect of the work of the ACP. Virtually all respondents argued that any "truth-telling" process needed to provide a strong community-based component in order to provide people with a sense of ownership and control.

    —  People providing testimony to the ACP were given back their edited transcripts prior to publication so they could make any changes they wished. This was seen as extremely important in giving people a sense of agency, control and a means to contest the idea of relatives as "passive" and/or "powerless" victims.

    —  A strong community base also meant that those carrying out the work of the project were people known to, and generally trusted by, participants. Most Ardoyne respondents suggested that talking to an "insider" allowed them to speak in ways they could not have done if the work was carried out by someone from the "outside".

    —  A number of potential issues surrounding the use of "insider" researchers were also noted by a minority including, an unwillingness to address certain issues and giving partial or guarded accounts, the potential political orientation of the project. For most, however, these drawbacks were outweighed the advantages of being able to know and trust those to whom they spoke.

    —  Any "truth-telling" mechanism should therefore consider ways in which community frameworks and perspectives could be interwoven into its working methods and structures to provide a sense of inclusiveness, equality, real participation and ownership.

Truth and Justice

    —  There were diverse views on what constituted "justice" in "truth-telling". Some saw the chance to "tell their story" through the project as sufficient, others saw truth-telling as complimentary to, rather than replacing, judicial mechanisms.

    —  Community-based truth-telling processes were seen as a useful means of meeting some of the ends of transitional justice as socially and psychologically "safe" places to "bear witness".

    —  The limitations of such processes are in their inability to uncover certain unknown information from outside agencies, to obtain official recognition, recompense and to pursue accountability.

    —  Mainly Unionist respondents tended to be far more suspicious of the whole debate around "truth and justice". The research suggested that the debate and initiatives on "truth-telling" can some times be seen as a solely nationalist agenda.

Inter-Community Tensions

    —  Views on the significance of the work of the ACP for inter-community relations differed widely. Within Ardoyne and the wider nationalist community the issue of community relations was either not a central priority or an approach to the issues under discussion that they problematised as driven by a "two traditions" perspective. Most. However, felt that the model employed by the ACP was something that other communities might usefully follow and that this could make a very positive contribution to inter-community dialogue.

    —  Unionist respondents were more divided in their views. Some saw the work of the project as offering real potential for enhancing cross-community relations, others that that it might have a potentially damaging impact on conflict resolution strategies because more likely to create, rather than diminish tensions and bi-polar social and political perspectives.

Intra-Community Tensions

    —  Most participants saw the work of the ACP as having a very positive impact on intra-community tensions. This was particularly linked to the fact that Ardoyne is not a homogenous community and in dealing with intra-community tensions surrounding, for example, the deaths of alleged informers.

    —  The project was credited with providing mechanisms and creating the time and space to help resolve a number of such issues related to intra-community violence and in dealing with certain "taboo" issues.

    —  It was also suggested that the ACP stimulated individual self-reflection and a shifting of long held viewpoints, opened a space for community dialogue and debate that has borne longer-term positive results.

    —  It was felt that all combatants to the conflict were accountable and that there was therefore a need to create a new confidence and willingness to "speak out" about difficult issues.

Single Identity Work

    —  Reflecting the social make-up of the area the ACP was mainly a single identity project, although victims from unionist backgrounds were also included. The research showed that there were strong reasons to support single identity truth-telling work.

    —  Many respondents were suspicious of a "two traditions" approach to inter-community "truth-telling", particularly because this excluded the active role of the British state in the conflict.

    —  The problem of self censorship and providing only partial accounts were also identified with the conduct of cross-community "truth-telling" work.

    —  Single identity work also provides a focus on the much neglected issue of intra-community tensions and divisions resulting from conflict.

    —  Problems with single identity work include; limiting contact with other communities, internal dialogue can lead to a re-assertion of views rather than a diminution of division (although the evidence suggests that recognition is more likely to lead to a spirit of generosity)

    —  There may be a need to devise a "truth-telling" process that enshrines the strengths and benefits of community-orientated single identity work but which also allows for this to be combined with parallel processes taking place elsewhere. Real, honest, meaningful (if difficult) dialogue may be better achieved in this way.


    —  Managing the expectations of relatives and victims is key to the success of "truth-telling" processes.

    —  Given the sensitivity, emotive and highly personal nature of the work, raising expectations that cannot, in the end, be met are likely to have deeply felt and far-reaching repercussions. Much of whatever satisfaction relatives who provided testimony to the ACP derived from the work was because they felt the project did what it said it would, no more and no less.


Recognition, Acknowledgement and Accountability

    —  We recommend the setting up of an initiative that facilitates community based "truth-telling" processes. To this end we would suggest the publication of a "user friendly" step-by-step guide booklet for communities interested in initiating such a process. There are communities currently involved in similar type work but lack the necessary skills, information and resources to undertake an ACP type process.

    —  We would stress that such work not be seen as a substitute for other, broader initiatives aimed at delivering acknowledgement, accountability, truth and justice. Parallel processes should also therefore be available for all those aggrieved who wish to pursue such avenues of redress.

    —  We further recommend that in any "truth-telling" process (community or particularly if state-led) all organisations and institutions (British and Irish states, republican and loyalists) should publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for their role in the conflict.


    —  We recommend that the principles of inclusivity and equality of victimhood should underpin all "truth-telling" initiatives (whether community or state-led).

Participation and Local Ownership

    —  The principles of community participation and local ownership and control should underpin the initiation, design and delivery of "truth-telling" processes. Any "truth-telling" process (community or otherwise) should genuinely attempt to establish ways in which community frameworks and perspectives could be interwoven into its working methods and structures so that a real sense of participation, ownership and a victim centred approach can be achieved.

Inter and Intra Community Tensions and Single Identity Work

    —  There is a need to recognise that intra as well as inter community tensions and divisions deriving from the conflict need to be addressed as part of conflict resolution and peace building. It follows that consideration should be given to promotion of "single identity" work as a necessary and viable approach to "truth-telling". The experience of those involved in the ACP would seem to suggest that achieving recognition in this way could allow for a greater spirit of generosity to flourish. This may, in other words, be seen as a stage in a wider and longer term process rather than solely an end in itself.

    —  We further recommend a process that enshrines the strengths and benefits of community-orientated single identity work but which also allow for this to be combined with parallel processes. These would allow for the sharing of information, and experiences, between specific projects and communities.

    —  Given the significant reservations expressed by unionist respondents towards "truth-telling" initiatives we would recommend that further research on such attitudes be carried out. This should be designed to enable a more fully inclusive public debate on such issues.

    —  An additional recommendation is that a "two traditions" approach should not be advocated as a viable model for "truth-telling" (whether community or state-led). As stated above, all organisations and institutions should publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for their role in the conflict.

Therapeutic Value

    —  We recommend that any community seeking to undertake such a process ensure appropriate mechanisms are in place before embarking on the project. This should be designed to safeguard interviewees/ participants and staff/volunteers from any negative/ traumatic or detrimental effects flowing from engagement in the project. It is important that support networks and services also have a strong community based focus.


    —  Transparency and openness should be a feature of "truth-telling" processes in order to avoid raising expectations and causing further hurt to victims. Participants should be told what to expect from the process at the outset and be kept informed of developments as far as possible throughout the process.

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