Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the University of Ulster; INCORE (International Conflict Research)

  INCORE welcomes the opportunity to make comments on the above inquiry. We wish to make five initial points. First, this submission is not an academic, definitive INCORE position paper. Rather, it is a series of suggestions as to possible responses to the inquiry. Further, it acknowledges a range of diverse possibilities, some of which INCORE staff might agree with, some of which are contentious, and all of which are worthy of open debate.

  Second, we note the politically unrepresentative nature of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is the inclusion of three Committee Members from Unionist parties and one from the SDLP. Although entitled to membership of a House of Commons Committee, Sinn Féin representatives are absent. We also note with dismay the entirely male nature of this Committee. Many people in Northern Ireland would view the membership of this Committee as being highly unrepresentative (in terms of gender and political/religious/cultural affiliation). Whatever decisions the Committee makes after reviewing the submissions to this inquiry, a Northern Ireland subcommittee should be formed that is both perceived and acknowledged as being inclusive and representative of diverse groups.

  Third, there needs to be a careful balance between illuminating "ways which have been used to help resolve similar conflicts elsewhere" (South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor, the Balkans), and the need to adapt to the specificity of history, culture and place. Those who should decide on what can be usefully adapted from elsewhere are those who have been most affected by "pain, grief and anger". That is, while some might argue that to some extent all who lived in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles" are victims, clearly some more than others have been conspicuously affected in deep ways. It is this group of victims, that is, those who have lost close members of families, have been injured physically and mentally or have suffered explicit sectarianism and discrimination who should be represented on sub-committees and be the focus of initiatives on "dealing with the past".

  Fourth, there has been a lot of positive work already done in Northern Ireland on these issues of dealing with the past and reconciliation. A lot of this work is continuing. Duplication of work is unnecessary, and can at times be disrespectful. Perhaps the development of a comprehensive database and an accessible booklet of works already done or in progress would be useful. Further, the "Healing Through Remembering" project already has set in motion many ideas and practices that are basic to this enquiry. The project proposes 14 different forms of remembering ( and provides a constructive list of recommendations around issues related to this inquiry. Perhaps these recommendations could be extended more broadly through all parts of Ireland, where communities see and feel the need to remember in order to reconcile differences and to move on.

  Fifth, "dealing with the past" is but one dimension of reconciliation, whichever conflict zones are under discussion. Reconciliation involves multi-layered processes, and an adequate response to reconciliation must deal with the past, the present (including stagnation, reasons for obstructions, ongoing sectarianism/racism/dogmatic closed-mindedness) and the future. To this end, our submission makes suggestions on this threefold basis: past, present and future stances.


    —  Language matters. It is better to talk about truths of the past then "the truth"—to recognise different voices and to acknowledge different interpretations of the truth. Accordingly, rather than a Northern Ireland Truth Commission, a series of community-based and cross-community fora is preferable. There is need for local level public processes in towns across Northern Ireland to participate in processes and activities with local relevance. "Truth" is a complex concept, its potency often is self-selective. Where there are non-judgemental spaces to tell personal stories, truth may emerge more clearly, certainly more comfortably than in forced trials or formal, legalistic Commissions. However, storytelling is not always sufficient. For paramilitary groups, police, politicians and governments, the relationship between truth, justice and accountability is more complex and needs to be explored further.

    —  There are things people want to remember and there are things people want to forget. Similarly, silence is sometimes a legitimate personal choice and underlying motivations for keeping silent should be respected. Again, this may be easier to do on a personal basis than on a group basis. For example, an ex-prisoner may be reluctant to talk about the specific details of his bombings or shootings, but the truth about his paramilitary group's responsibility for creating suffering needs to be known and acknowledged.

    —  The acknowledgement by the British government of state complicity in contributing to suffering is imperative—silence is delaying reconciliation. An international body of respected statespersons, lawyers, political advisers, could be formed to facilitate a British government acknowledgement of its political culpability.

    —  What is a reasonable apology and what are the boundaries of forgiveness again are debatable issues. However, an apology is a symbolic gesture (Pope Paul II apologised for the hurt caused to the Jewish people during the Holocaust, the Japanese Prime Minister apologised for the abuse of "comfort women", yet the Australian Prime Minister John Howard refuses to apologise to the Australian indigenous people for forced assimilation of the "stolen generation"). Debate on the meanings of apology and the significance of forgiveness can take place in religious and secular contexts. Acts of symbolic apology, repentance and remorse, and the acceptance of these acts through forgiveness are part of dealing holistically with the pain of the past. While churches play an important role in encouraging these acts, political forgiveness is connected to practical reconciliation in civil society. Others might see the fulfilment of justice, equality and human rights to be a more positive manifestation of reconciliation, rather than seeing the need for political forgiveness.

    —  The provision for historical commemorations, museums and historical sites is needed with the requirement that these should not have sectarian connotations, or more truthfully, that the sectarian history be acknowledged, with regret, perhaps in plaques.


    —  Reconciliation often is linked to victims and hurts they have suffered. This is certainly the case as expressed by the 1998 "The Agreement". Clarification, discussion, debate, open forums are still needed as to the range of understandings and possibilities as to what reconciliation really can mean. Norman Porter argues in defence of "strong reconciliation" which requires: "fair interactions between members of opposing groups" that we "overcome our antagonistic divisions by occupying common ground; and. . .the presence of a society in which all citizens have a sense of belonging" (The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, 2003: 94-5). Strong reconciliation thus requires a move from "dealing with the past" to changed practices in the present. Thus, fair interactions require justice, equality and human rights; the overcoming of divisions to appreciate common ground requires combating sectarianism and acknowledging common shared civic desires (like decent jobs, good standards of living, health and integrated education); and civic belonging requires an inclusive sense of identification as well as the implementation of The Agreement.

    —  To this end, elected politicians play an enormous role in hindering or facilitating "strong reconciliation". To continue to have talks, agreements and negotiations done by proxy or second-hand related messages with none of the goodwill gestures of common courtesy like handshaking, and to have a suspended Assembly works explicitly against any development of a common sense of civic belonging.

    —  Rectifying injustices is crucial to reconciliation processes. Certainly, in transitional justice, there is an element of restorative justice, reparations that include compensations. The possibility of such compensation should not delay legal hearings.

    —  Reconciliation does not presuppose resolving differences. Dissonance is part of democracy. There are many differences that cannot be resolved in Northern Ireland. Where there is mutual respect for others, difference need not dissolve into conflict. The media and elected politicians play a crucial role in public perceptions of ways to "manage" difference. If expressions of exclusion, disrespect, distrust, and closed-mindedness were called into critical questioning by the media whenever politicians and public spokespersons are being interviewed, citizens may well learn positive lessons of what is or is not acceptable if Northern Ireland is to move on from its legacy of bitterness and bigotry. Affirming, even embracing difference is crucial to actual reconciliation.


    —  The chief point of dealing with the past and present in Northern Ireland is to envisage a future where diverse groups of people who live on the island of Ireland can thrive. All ways to cultivate a respect for diversity while simultaneously fostering common ideals and mutual senses of belonging should be encouraged.

  Reconciliation requires work from all sectors of the community—academics, churches, lawyers, policy-makers, NGOs, community-groups, victim groups and all concerned citizens. We should learn what has worked elsewhere and why it helped, and we should learn what has not been successful and why not, but be prepared for contextual adaptation of reconciliation in terms of the mechanisms, strategies, structures and processes given the historical, political peculiarities in Northern Ireland.

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