Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


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 of work:

      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 truth—what 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 past—absence 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 above—public acknowledgement of the wrong done to them—would almost be justice enough.


  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 used—such 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 forgive—or 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, politicians—not themselves. So throughout the last 30 years people have told their stories—to 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 own stories.


  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 above.

  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 open—truth commission, storytelling, public inquiries, criminal investigations—even 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

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