Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Brian Lennon, sj, Community Dialogue

  The following is the text of a leaflet published by Community Dialogue on ways to deal with the past in Northern Ireland. These comments are expanded in my recently published book: Peace Comes Dropping Slow: Dialogue and Conflict Management in Northern Ireland (Community Dialogue, 2004).


  "The past" is a polite term to cover over all the pain of nearly 35 years of conflict in which over 3,500 were killed out of our population of 1.5 million. Thousands more were physically injured. Tens of thousands lost loved ones. Nearly 20,000 went through our prisons.

  How do we get to a point where we are no longer dominated by the past?

  There are only a limited number of options:

    1.  Legal justice.

    2.  Reconciliation.

    3.  Truth.

    4.  Amnesia.

    5.  A mixture of the above.

    6.  Staying stuck in the past.

  It's worth looking at some of the pros and cons of each of these.


  Legal justice focuses on punishment through courts. But it is difficult to get convictions for Troubles-related crimes. Many murders took place decades ago so evidence is unreliable. When the IRA blew up the Forensic Laboratory in Belfast in 1992 they destroyed a lot of evidence. Under Agreement no one will serve more than two years. The police do not have the resources to investigate Troubles-related murders and current policing needs.

  So you may want legal justice but you are unlikely to get it.


  There are many different and often mutually exclusive meanings of reconciliation. Here are three:

    (a)  The Christian ideal: both forgiving and repenting are needed for reconciliation. Some Christians say repentance must come first, others that either can come first. Some say forgiving and apologising have no role in politics.

    (b)  Punishing the enemy.

    (c)  Developing partnerships for a mutually beneficial future, which says nothing about forgiving or repenting. Was the exchange of ambassadors between the USA and Vietnam 20 years after the end of their war an act of reconciliation, a business decision, a step towards reconciliation, or a bit of all of these?

    (d)  If you do a "Google" on the internet you will find many other uses of the term:

—  Reconciliation differs when it is between individuals, groups, or States. For example, if Aaron does something wrong to Joshua, then, if they are to be reconciled Aaron has to say sorry and Joshua has to forgive him.

—  With groups and States it is more complicated: what would reconciliation between the IRA and the DUP involve? An apology and the offer of forgiveness? A power-sharing deal for selfish reasons? Should the UK apologise to the Germans for the fire-storm at Dresden during World War II? Should the British apologise for the Famine, even though the British alive today were not around at the time?

—  Does talk of reconciliation in politics make any sense?

  Three points come out of all this: we need to say what we mean if we talk about reconciliation. We should distinguish inter-personal from group and political situations. And if we focus on wrongdoing we need to ask: "Who has done what wrong to whom?" Normally there will be great disagreement about this.


  Many victims are not interested in punishment, they simply want the truth. In South Africa perpetrators who did not tell the truth were refused amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But one side won that conflict. Here it was a military stalemate. There is not the same need for amnesty. Why then would either Government or paramilitaries tell the truth? Public inquiries are unlikely to lead to much truth: the Ministry of Defense lost the guns used at Bloody Sunday before the Saville Enquiry.

  Unionists argue that inquiries put only the security forces in the dock and ignore what paramilitaries did. Republicans point out that many of their number went to prison. Further, the British Government always claimed to be better than the paramilitaries. Now it turns out—as Republicans see it—that this was not the case.

  The only type of Truth Commission which might work in our situation is one in which victims and perpetrators involved in the same incident voluntarily share information.

  If you support a focus on truth, how much truth will you get? What price will be paid for it in alienating other sections of society?


  Many want to forget the past move on, and make some money.

  But the past keeps coming back to bite us. Victims take cases to court and this leads to legal pressures on the Government. The Government makes concessions to Republicans in return for decommissioning. "Innocent" victims complain that all the focus is on republican victims whereas their loved ones were murdered defending the State.

  Forgetting the past is impossible. The pain is too great. But some recognise that they cannot bring back their loved ones and therefore stop talking about the past.


  This view says: "Let's use what helps in the above approaches". It focuses on creative ways to remember the past, without being stuck in it. Some suggestions put forward in the Healing Through Remembering Report were:

    —  Find ways to listen to the personal stories of those who wish to share them.

    —  An annual "day of reflection".

    —  A permanent living memorial museum.

What can we do?

  Here are some questions we could usefully discuss:

For Individuals:

    —  Can we say sorry for any of the things we did in the past?

    —  If we are not going to agree morally about the past why try to convince others that what they did was wrong? Yet, if we do not do this, are we being silent about terrible crimes?

    —  Can we recognise the wrongs our group did? (A Republican told a group of Unionists that his group had been sectarian. It transformed the conversation. The same would be true if the roles were reversed).

    —  Can we enter into the pain of others, even though we believe that what they did was wrong? (It changes things when people believe their pain has been heard).

    —  Why do we remember the past? To blame others? To deal with our pain? Or simply to get the truth?

For Victims:

    —  Are we moving towards being survivors? Or are we stuck as victims? If we are a victims' organisation when will our members be able to say they are no longer victims?

    —  When is it helpful for victims to tell their story, and when does doing this keep them stuck in the past?

For Groups and Political Parties:

    —  Can we find ways to remember the past which are less offensive to others?

    —  Can we help families—even privately—find out what happened their loved ones?

    —  Does the group to which we belong use victims for its own political ends?

    —  Do we glorify the past and hide the pain from which so many suffered?

For All of Us:

  —  Many want to say: "The past is over". But we may not be able to say this for years because there is too much pain. Do we need to accept this?

What is Community Dialogue?

  Community Dialogue is made up of community workers from across the divide. As a group we take no positions on party-political issues. We believe that if we want to make peace we need to question ourselves, listen to others, and try genuinely to see new angles on things.

6 January 2005

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