Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Most Rev Séan Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland


  I welcome this opportunity to make a brief contribution to the Inquiry on "Reconciliation: Ways of Dealing with Northern Ireland's Past" being conducted by the Northern Ireland Select Affairs Committee.

  As the Inquiry itself notes, discussion on this important and complex matter has intensified in recent months following the Secretary of State's announcement in May 2004 that he was embarking on a programme of discussions about how Northern Ireland could find "ways of dealing with the past" which "enable it to build a better future for the next generation."

  This is a welcome objective and addresses a theme that has been part of an ongoing conversation between representatives of the various Christian traditions in Northern Ireland for some time. My own comments and observations are informed by that conversation and by the research and observations of the Northern Ireland Catholic Commission on Social Affairs, the group which provides advice and research to the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland on social issues.


  The point of departure for the Church's response to the question of dealing with Northern Ireland's violent past, is its belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the possibility that God can heal and transform even the most violent and painful of human events and bring out of their midst a new beginning, a new creation. This healing and transformation was central to the ministry of Jesus. He came to bring "liberty to the captives" and "freedom to the oppressed" (Lk 4:16). This included liberating people from the captivity of fear, regret, desire for retribution and vengeance that are often part of the legacy of violence and conflict. It was about restoring broken relationships, breaking down barriers and opening up new horizons of both conversion and forgiveness. It involved creating safe and understanding spaces for those who are "weary and overburdened", including the marginalised and the vulnerable. It was both personal and collective, addressing the individual and the historical memory of the community.

  The Church continues this healing and transforming ministry in many ways, from the sacramental and pastoral support it provides to individuals and families who are experiencing trauma and grief, to its development of and involvement in a wide variety of local community initiatives which support the work of healing and reconciliation in local communities, sometimes in partnership with other community, voluntary or statutory agencies.


  This existing work of the Churches and of voluntary and community groups at a local level, both within communities and across traditional community boundaries, has had, and continues to have, an important though often quiet and unpublicised impact on the healing and reconciling of individuals, groups and communities in some of the most difficult interface areas in Northern Ireland.

  These local, sometimes informal processes have the benefit of localised participation and ownership, familiarity with the individual or groups concerned, as well as their history and environment, and the durability to be able to ensure ongoing support.

  In considering "ways of dealing with the past which recognises the pain, grief and anger associated with it", it seems important and just that the existing work of the Churches and faith communities, as well as other community and voluntary groups, is recognised, supported and extended, in addition to any more formal and public process which may emerge.


  The experience of those working on such healing and reconciliation projects at a local level would suggest a number of general principles that are important in this kind of transformative process:

 (a)   Respect for the uniqueness of the experience of every individual, including the manner in which they cope with and define their grief and pain

  This suggests that there is no "one size fits all" approach to the complex issue of dealing with past in Northern Ireland. Some of the "pain, grief and anger" associated with the past is personal, some of it is owned by communities, some of it is recent, some of it is historical, some of it profound in its scale and tragedy, some of it transient and relatively superficial. This means that a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past will inevitably be multi-layered, involving a range of related strategies and approaches at both the macro-political level, at the level of local communities and at the personal level.

  It is likely therefore that different elements of processes already undertaken across the world will be necessary to address the complexity of the needs and expectations that exist in Northern Ireland. There is no existing model which can be easily translated to our particular circumstances. Some people will want to participate, others will not. Some will benefit from telling their story, having their pain heard and acknowledged, others will want to uncover previously unknown aspects of the truth. Some will want vengeance, retribution or imprisonment, others will want exoneration and amnesty. Any macro process which is proposed would have to address all of these needs and expectations.

  It may be that some, rather than all of these expectations can be met. It may be that some of these processes, such as recording one's story or remembering painful events in a formal and constructive way could happen in advance of or independently from any larger scale process requiring political and legislative support.

  All of this suggests that an important starting point in any such initiative is a comprehensive assessment of both the demand for and the range of personal, emotional, therapeutic and other needs which would be associated with any such process.

 (b)   The potential for politicisation should be minimised

  This, I would suggest, is critical. The need for truth telling and reconciliation needs to be weighed against the need to achieve and maintain wide spread political agreement in Northern Ireland. Unless such agreement has been achieved and the stability of agreed political arrangements has become sufficiently robust, there is a real danger that dealing with the past in a very public and formal way will destabilise the political environment and further undermine the very possibility of achieving reconciliation.

  This suggests that achieving political agreement and allowing the political institutions which emerge from that agreement sufficient time to stabilise is a prerequisite for any comprehensive and formal approach to dealing with the past. It is not clear that Northern Ireland has reached that point. It also suggests that people need to have the certainty that what they have experienced in the past will not occur again in the future, that violence and the threat of violence, from whatever quarter, has been clearly rejected as a means of achieving political ends. Again, it is not clear that Northern Ireland has reached that point.

  The principle of respect for the uniqueness of the experience of every individual also tends to favour a process which emphasizes the private mediated, or small group type of process rather than one which is very formal and public. A more private process would minimise the possibility of such a process, and the individuals who participate in it, being exploited for political or other ends. Such politicisation would quickly undermine the integrity and effectiveness of such a process, yet will be hard to avoid unless the two Governments, the political parties and the relevant paramilitary groups have expressed a level of agreement about and public commitment to the process itself and to the rules that will govern it. Achieving such consensus and obtaining clarity about the extent to which each party to the conflict in Northern Ireland will participate in the process, and on what terms, would be an important part of assessing whether such a process is possible at all.

  In this regard it is interesting to note that there have been over twenty "Truth and Reconciliation" processes undertaken across the world in recent times, most of which seem to have achieved significant but always limited success. Each of them has encountered some form of difficulty along the way, not least that of raising expectations that the process was not always able to meet. It is also interesting to note that in the South African TRC process almost ninety percent of the hearings took place in private.

 (c)   Those who feel the need to be healed from the consequences of the past, determine who they are, not others

  This touches on one of the most sensitive aspects of any process of dealing with the past, the issue of who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. In the context of a historical conflict, this distinction can sometimes be very straightforward, at other times very complex. Some people have clearly perpetrated the most heinous crimes for which there is no conceivable justification, others reacted violently out of their own experience of being a victim, and most, including Churches and State based agencies, were caught up to varying degrees in the competing ideologies of the conflict. This means that any process of dealing effectively with the past needs to be sufficiently flexible as to allow for the complexity of the relationship between victim and perpetrator in a historic conflict, between a divided community, to be accommodated.

  This is not to suggest that there is moral equivalence in terms of the culpability of all of those involved in such a process. Indeed, one of the potential abuses of such a process would be for those who bear responsibility for what by any standards were morally unacceptable actions, to be allowed to use the process as a means of minimising the moral significance of what they have done. Rather, it is likely that, in the interests of establishing the truth about what has happened and why, the issue of the relative moral culpability of the participants will not be the primary issue. While accepting responsibility is important, and needs to be considered in terms of the legal parameters which will condition and support such a process, the emphasis will be on moving beyond retributive justice to the broader and deeper processes of healing, restoration, truth telling and transformation.

  Any such process also needs to be flexible enough to accept that many of those who perpetrated atrocities in the past, continue to be burdened by that past and wish to address it in a constructive and transforming way. Such acknowledgement and transformation, if undertaken sincerely and with the necessary commitments to a peaceful and constructive participation in the future, will clearly benefit the whole of our society.


  Other complex but important considerations in any such process would include:

    —  How such a process will relate to existing or potential policing, judicial and public enquiries which seek to address issues from the past? Over 1,800 killings and an even higher number of violent incidents resulting in injury and loss remain unsolved. The fact that there is never likely to be sufficient policing or other resources to address all of these aspects of the past is a strong argument in favour of a process of voluntary disclosure rather than criminal investigation. This is turn raises the complex question of incentive, what can and should be offered to those who volunteer to disclose incriminating information in the course of such a process? On the other hand, if the perception of such a process is that it becomes a means of obfuscating or postponing other more rigorous and effective means of arriving at the truth, then it is unlikely to receive widespread support.

    —  Closely related to this is the issue of confidence in the willingness of individuals and organisations, including paramilitary groups and state-based agencies, to participate fully in such a process and to disclose accurately and as fully as possible all the information they have available. On the one hand, this may require the use of strong incentives to encourage individuals to participate, incentives which may cause further offence and pain to the victims of their actions. On the other hand, the experience of participation in public inquiries in Northern Ireland to date has been very mixed. It seems fair to suggest that there is a general lack of confidence that all those who need to participate fully and frankly in such a process are likely to do so. In this context the question which needs to be considered is whether even partial disclosure of the truth and an imperfect process is better than no process at all?

    —  Political commitment to providing the resources required to sustain such a process is also important. If it is to be effective it will inevitably require the application of a wide range of specialised administrative, legal, therapeutic and other resources over a considerable period of time. This has to be weighed against the realistic outcomes of such a process, in as far as these can be anticipated. While disclosure of the truth is a high priority and no price can be put on its discovery, in real terms resources are rarely unlimited and often compete with other important demands. In this context, while finance should not in any sense be the primary consideration, the shape, form and limits of such a process might be determined to a degree by the implications for resources. It may be important to cost certain approaches and make these costs known to the general public in advance of a final decision being taken about the model to be followed.

    —  It is unclear what, if any, remedies such a process could produce. Would it include, for example, compensation, a declaration of rights infringed, a recommendation for future statutory reform and safeguards, referencing for counselling and therapy and so on? Who will decide is to decide on the range of remedies to be offered and who will provide them? What are the legal implications, notably in terms of human rights legislation in favour of the right to an "effective remedy" (European Convention on Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms, 1950, Art 13).


  Churches and faith communities clearly have a role to play in helping Northern Ireland deal constructively with its past. As mentioned at the beginning, much of the work of the Churches at local level is already directed towards this end. Those who minister in Churches and faith communities also have considerable pastoral experience of journeying with people through the pain of loss and grief. Churches can create safe and constructive spaces for people to tell their story and receive spiritual and emotional support. They can provide prayer and ritual for both individuals and communities, for collective, constructive and transformative remembering. They can support the process of healing with the vocabulary and experience of the Gospel in terms of forgiveness, reconciliation, love of enemy and going the extra mile. They can offer prayer for discernment, wisdom and guidance about dealing with the personal and collective dimensions of the past, for letting go of the anger and pain which can hold us captive. In the context of a stable political arrangement and the absence of the threat of violence, it may be that the Churches and faith communities could contribute to dealing with the past by organising prayerful and transformative memorial events such as those currently associated with the holocaust or other tragic historic events.

  The media also have an important role in this regard. Carefully constructed programmes which provide opportunities for people to tell their story and have it acknowledged publicly, such as the Legacy series recently on the BBC, can have a significant healing impact.


  By far the most consistent view expressed by those I have consulted on this matter, was the need to hand over the whole process of assessing the desire for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland and making recommendations for the structure and form of such a process, to an independent commission with expertise across a range of related disciplines and a mix of local and international membership, at the earliest possible stage. While current initiatives and consultation are important and welcome, a process which does not have this level of independence and broad political agreement between the two governments and the main political parties in Northern Ireland, is unlikely to receive widespread support and is therefore unlikely to be effective.

  While not intended to be exhaustive, I hope these comments have been of some assistance in this timely and important inquiry being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Select Committee has undertaken and for which I offer my continued best wishes and support.

December 2004

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