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:
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.
1. LEGAL JUSTICE
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.
(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
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 outas Republicans see
itthat 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
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.
5. A MIXTURE
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:
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
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?
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
For Groups and Political Parties:
Can we find ways to remember the
past which are less offensive to others?
Can we help familieseven privatelyfind
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
6 January 2005