Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Falls Community Council

  1.  We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the public debate on dealing with the legacy of the past.

  2.  There are many processes needed to support a society coming out of conflict and making the transition to peaceful democracy and we believe that truth recovery work is an essential part of this. Truth recovery can take many forms including judicial processes, formal truth mechanisms (including truth commissions), investigation, story telling, remembering and oral history. This reflects the many different kinds or genres of truth: historical truth, moral truth, factual or forensic truth, personal or narrative truth, social or dialogue truth and healing and restorative truth.

  3.  Experience from elsewhere tells us that dealing with the past and truth recovery is a necessary process. In many conflict situations around the world the unresolved issues of the past come back even when a new regime has attempted to move on without any acknowledgement or examination of historical wrongs. Currently in Uruguay, Chile and Spain there are ongoing investigations of the human rights abuses inflicted in previous decades.

  4.  Since 1999 Falls Community Council has been engaged in oral history work set up with the aim of enabling our community to make sense of the past we have experienced. The community of nationalist West Belfast suffered disproportionately the trauma of the conflict, not only in the number of deaths but also the wider impact of militarisation, as well as marginalisation and isolation from the political and civic structures of the state. Through our oral history archive of the experience of the conflict in West Belfast we are building a resource to examine our history and learn from the past. This stems from the belief that grassroots engagement with the process of recording history is a means for peacebuilding and political transformation. We locate this work as truth recovery and conflict resolution work although it will also, we believe be an important legacy for the future.

  5.  The experience of doing this work has taught us that truth recovery work is a long and arduous process. The quotation below from an article reflecting on the impact of the South African TRC conveys this meaning: `How does one transform information into knowledge, emotion into insight, events into experience, experience into meaning? How is truth not merely recognised, but integrated into a new sense of self, into new social relationships, into new political structures, into the building of a future that is fundamentally different from (rather than an erasure of) the past' (Linfield, 2000)

  6.  Falls Community Council has taken part in a number of other networks that have been working on dealing with the past ie:

    —  the Healing Through Remembering Project;

    —  an informal network of victims groups convened through the Community Relations Council;

    —  and Eolas, a group of organisations and individuals working with victims and former political prisoners in the republican and nationalist communities of Ireland.

  7.  The Healing Through Remembering Project has produced a report recommending a number of ways of dealing with the past. These include story telling, a living museum, an annual day of reflection, commemoration projects as well as a truth recovery process. These recommendations are being progressed in a number of working groups of which Falls Community Council is a member.

  8.  The Healing Through Remembering report makes clear that dealing with the past involves more than a truth recovery mechanism and that any such mechanism should run alongside the other recommended initiatives. In its discussion of a truth recovery mechanism the report stresses that an essential first step should be acknowledgement from all role players of their responsibility for past violence including physical and psychological acts of violence, active encouragement, passive engagement or not doing enough to prevent such acts. The role players listed in the report encompass organisations, political parties, institutions, the British and Irish states and Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.

  9.  The informal network of groups representing and working with victims (including Falls Community Council) is facilitated through the Community Relations Council and is continuing to meet. Our discussions are at an early and tentative stage and we have recently sent a letter to Paul Murphy requesting that he delay any decision regarding a mechanism for dealing with the past until we can complete our process and therefore be better able to participate in a consultation. The letter also expresses concern about current initiatives from the MO because of our shared distrust of the British and Irish governments ability to deal effectively with these issues.

  10.  The Eolas group has produced a document discussing the case for an official or formal truth process. The document draws on international experience to inform an approach to serve local needs. Different models are presented. All are based on the need for public acknowledgement of the suffering endured by all the victims of the conflict. They also suggest an investigative approach that deals with unresolved issues in a way that is victim centred and also seeks to answer questions about causes as well as establishing facts. Like other truth commissions globally Eolas recommend that a formal truth mechanism should seek to establish historical truth, to outline patterns of abuse and highlight institutional factors that facilitated the abuse of human rights.

  11.  The Eolas document also makes the point that a formal truth mechanism is one of many processes. The document concludes that an official or formal truth process should deliver something specific and additional to other mechanisms for dealing with the past.

  12.  Often truth is linked with healing but this is too simplistic. The oral history work at Falls Community Council tells us there is no necessary or inevitable link between telling and healing. Healing may happen but this is a very individual process. Our emphasis is on creating a process that enables the collection of oral history narratives without doing harm to the contributor. The danger of the requirement for therapeutic value to victims is that all the benefit is placed on the victim and therefore implicitly also all the responsibility for dealing with the past. Our view is that this is a societal responsibility.

  13.  In Falls Community Council the ethos is that the oral history is a gift. The responsibility is on us to value oral history contributions to the archive. This emphasis shifts the way in which the interview is treated. It becomes a part of an archive that is an instrument for bearing witness. This in fact reflects the motivation of many of the contributors to the Du«chas archive. For many the reason to take part is about making the past count and about giving something to the future. This experience suggests another way to consider victims narratives—to see them as gifts to the transition to a just and peaceful democracy. Such a view would reshape attitudes towards victims and also towards the necessity of truth recovery.

  14.  To date in Ireland, much of the debate and exchange on the role of history and memory in conflict resolution has been carried out at theoretical and academic levels with relatively little basis in community experience. There is a danger that the official collection and production of narrative can exclude the majority of those most impacted by conflict and violence. Falls Community Council combines community development and oral history methods to produce a narrative in people's own words, which affirms their experience and also offers access to this history at many different levels. It has been widely noted that in the north of Ireland we do not have a shared narrative about the past and indeed that this is a contested area, thus impeding overarching and state led approaches to peacebuilding. Falls Community Council's experience offers an alternative community development approach which could inform future directions for this work as a whole.

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