Memorandum submitted by Professor Bill
Rolston, Sociology Department, University of Ulster
I am professor of Sociology at the University
of Ulster at Jordanstown. I began working on the issue of truth
shortly after the ceasefires of 1994 and have continued to research
and write on the topic ever since. (A list of my publications
is provided at the end of this submission.) In the course of that
research, I have had close contact with a number of victims' and
campaign groups; have interviewed a range of relatives of victims
of state killings; and have most recently been interviewing loyalists
in depth regarding their ideas of dealing with the past. I am
convinced of two underlying principles as a result of this decade
1. that dealing with the past is
a crucial part of conflict transformation in transitional societies;
2. that our ability as a society
to deal with the past will be inhibited if any group feels unable
to keep up with the others.
In what follows, I would like to elaborate further
on some of the conclusions I have drawn as a result of my interest
in this topic.
A common demand in societies coming out of a
period of protracted violent political conflict has been the demand
for truth. This has led in at least two dozen societies in recent
decades to the establishment of a formal truth commission.
Truth is a difficult concept to define, not
least because of a strong belief that there is no such thing as
truth, only each person's truth. Valid as that may be in terms
of trauma counselling or psychology, it is of limited value in
terms of coming to terms with the past at a social rather than
an individual level.
The word "truth" is often taken to
refer to what might be called forensic truthwhat happened?
When? How?, etc. The value of seeking truth at this level alone
is limited, not least because the facts are frequently known.
In fact, many relatives of victims are aware even of the names
of perpetrators, although these names are not otherwise widely
known in the public domain. When victims, their relatives and
supporters seek truth, it is usually shorthand for two elements
in addition to the facts.
The first is explanation: why did this happen?
Why were such people targeted as legitimate victims? Why was s/he
picked out? Why weren't they arrested rather than shot? This quest
for reasons is particularly relevant when it comes to state killings.
The democratic state after all rests on one fundamental premise:
the protection of the lives and rights of all citizens, without
favour. A corollary of that is the pursuit of those who threaten
the lives and rights of citizens, again without favour, even if
they happen to be in the employ of the state. When the state kills,
covers up for those who kill, and demonises those who seek answers,
the demand for explanation is especially intense.
The second is acknowledgment. All too often
in violent conflicts hierarchies of victims emerge. For supporters
of the state, the hurts inflicted on state personnel are on a
higher moral plane than those inflicted on insurgents or their
supporters. For insurgents and their supporters, the moral hierarchy
can be reversed. The consequence is that the hurt of those at
the bottom of whichever hierarchy is denied or diminished. Any
society coming out of conflict must strive as a priority to remove
any such hierarchies. The duty of the state is to ensure that
the hurt of all victims is acknowledged seriously.
The demand for truth is intimately connected
to the demand for justice. In fact, the limits of justice in the
formal criminal justice sense are well-known to many victims,
relatives and campaigners here. In the first place, there are
many reasons why perpetrators failed to be called to task in the
pastabsence of viable evidence, political interference
with the objective rule of law, etc. Although there have been
advances in forensics in recent years, not least in relation to
DNA testing, the limits of seeking prosecution are still obvious.
First, DNA apart, the likelihood of acquiring plausible evidence
two or three decades after an event when it was not available
in the first place is slim. Second, the cost of reinvestigating
all incidents is prohibitive and the recent allocation of £9
million for the PSNI to investigate "historic crimes"
is regarded by many unionist victims' groups as insulting. Third,
there is no reason that those organisations with the ability to
thwart investigations in past years are any more committed to
openness and justice now. John Stalker was blocked by powerful
and shadowy forces when attempting to investigate a series of
murders in the 1980s; there is no reason to believe that these
and similar powerful and shadowy forces have gone away or are
prone to be more cooperative now.
Finally, it is obvious that even if evidence
is produced which is sufficient to convict perpetrators, the terms
of the Belfast Agreement ensure that it is unlikely that anyone
will spend a lengthy period in jail for any past offences arising
from the conflict. Some loyalists I have talked to insist that
that is not the point, that the symbolism of the rule of law is
crucial and that therefore it is sufficient that someone be "shamed"
by a conviction, even if no prison sentence is actually served.
For them, this is not revenge but "law and order".
That said, I have interviewed others who see
the pursuit of prosecution in the present circumstances as tantamount
to revenge and who have insisted that they do not want prosecutions.
For some, the legal route to be followed is that of inquiries
which seek to put documentation and cross-examination evidence
in the public domain. For others, truth as defined abovepublic
acknowledgement of the wrong done to themwould almost be
It is possible to see reconciliation as the
desired outcome of a truth process. For some people I have spoken
to, reconciliation is seen in an individual light; some have even
gone as far as concluding that the goal is that every perpetrator
should repent and be forgiven. For others, the concept is seen
in a more social sense; although words taken from counselling
individuals are often usedsuch as "healing" and
"closure"the aspiration is that society as a
whole should be able to move on as a result of a truth process.
That said, there are many to whom I have spoken,
especially those who have been subject to human rights abuses
by state forces, who find the word "reconciliation"
overbearing. At very least it is felt to be too loose a concept,
implying that somehow we are all guilty in some form or other
for the conflict and its duration, and that we all need to forgive
and be forgiven. The demarcation line between perpetrators and
victims is lost in this approach. More, there are times where
the implication is that unless victims "forgive", reconciliation
for society is impossible. Reconciliation becomes one more burden
heaped on victims who, for often justifiable reasons, are not
ready, willing or able to forgiveor at least not yet. It
can be one more form of victimisation. As some have said to me,
they don't mind forgiving but they want to know whom they are
forgiving. Others put it this way, that they are willing to forgive,
but only if it is genuinely asked for.
Storytelling is a valuable way for individuals
or groups of victims to acquire a sense of control over their
own lives. Too often, especially for victims of state violence,
their story has not been told, or the validity of it has been
denied by powerful forces. For all victims, the control of their
story is frequently in the hands of journalists, church people,
politiciansnot themselves. So throughout the last 30 years
people have told their storiesto friends, to their community,
sometimes privately, but also publicly. They have written their
stories down or had them recorded in community inquiries. They
have published their accounts.
There are of course many victims, perhaps the
majority, who have not had the opportunity or confidence to do
so. Providing them with such opportunity may not be a bad thing.
But, it needs to be recognised that they must be comfortable telling
that story. There are many ways in which they can be made uncomfortable,
especially if lacking in confidence, and so must be allowed to
tell that story privately, anonymously, informally, without cross-community
requirements, if that is what they want. The retort may be that
there is not one format which can accommodate those differing
requirements. If that is the case, so be it; there must be a range
of formats. Simply put, victims need to be in control of their
On the basis of these and other findings I have
uncovered in my research, I would like to sum up with a number
of suggestions/caveats, some of which come directly out of the
1. A formal process of truth recovery has
potential for conflict transformation.
2. No one should be forced to participate
in a formal process of truth recovery, nor made to feel lesser
for declining to participate.
3. There is no one magic formula for coming
to terms with the past, so all avenues should be left opentruth
commission, storytelling, public inquiries, criminal investigationseven
if not all are pursued fully at the same time.
4. While story telling is valuable for some
victims, it cannot be the sole focus of coming to terms with the
past, not least because it does not contain an investigative element
such as has existed in other truth recovery processes globally.
5. Because the state has been itself involved
in past human rights abuses, any formal truth recovery processes
must be independent of the state. Moreover, ideally the process
of consultation regarding the way forward in terms of dealing
with the past must also be independent of the state.
6. All truth recovery processes must be
posited on the acceptance of the right of all victims to be considered
victims, without any hierarchy of victims.
7. Any process of truth recovery must be
victim-centred, even if there is no agreement between victims'
groups as regards the purposes, processes or proposed outcomes.
If the presence of a multiplicity of voices means there must be
a multiplicity of mechanisms available, so be it.
8. The process should be labelled as one
of truth recovery, and any official commitment to reconciliation
should be avoided. If the truth process works, reconciliation
can be the outcome. But foregrounding reconciliation can be another
form of burdening victims.
9. No formal process or processes of truth
recovery at a social level should be used to justify lessening
of funding for groups who wish to engage in counselling of victims
or self-help and mutual aid among victims.
10. A truth recovery process should not
be represented as a line in the sand, a one-off event after which
no one is allowed ever again to raise issues about the past.
30 November 2004