Northern Ireland is dealing with its past every day – but usually not in a way that is helpful or constructive. That was the message from a panel discussion, ‘Can we Handle the Truth?’ that I attended on Saturday 30 January 2010 in Derry.
The panel featured Denis Bradley, who along with Lord Robin Eames was co-chair of the Consultative Group on the Past. A year ago, only a few days after the Consultative Group had released its Report on dealing with the past, I attended a similar panel discussion.
One year on, nothing has been done at an official, institutional level to implement any of the recommendations of the Report. There was a further ‘consultation process’ with community and civil society groups, but Bradley confessed on Saturday that he has ‘heard nothing’ since the consultation and that he fears the politicians are ‘happy to bury’ it.
Bradley contextualised the discussion by pointing out that Northern Ireland’s politicians were six days into hot house negotiations on the devolution of policing and justice powers, and that it seemed to him that the issue of Orange Order marches was poised to derail the whole process.
He said that the energy being invested in the Orange issue indicated, to him, that unless Northern Ireland’s contentious past was confronted in a vigorous, systematic and humane way – issues from the past would keep cropping up, causing our politics to lurch from crisis to crisis.
On this there was agreement from the other two panellists, Sandra Peake from the WAVE Trauma Centre and Mark Thompson from Relatives for Justice. Thompson said that unless measures like those recommended in the Report were implemented, people would continue to take cases to the Police Ombudsman (which, he said, has a case backlog that will take 40 years to clear), or pursue legal cases. Peake believes that the Report’s recommendations need a ‘champion’ who will argue the case before the public and the politicians for recommendations such as a Legacy Commission.
There is a strong temptation within Northern Ireland – especially among the middle and upper classes that appear to be getting on with good jobs and comfortable lives – that it would be better to draw a line under the past and forget about the Troubles altogether.
But I tend to agree with Bradley that this option is illusory. In the absence of a thorough and well-considered reckoning with the past, elements of our two separate ‘communities’ will nurse their wounds in continued fear and isolation. The past will be commemorated in ways that perpetuate myths and stereotypes about the ‘other’ side. The middle and upper classes will wash their hands of the entire affair and the sectarianism that structures almost every part of Northern Irish society will remain.
Bradley has made a very practical point by saying, essentially, that unless the past is dealt with it will never go away, you know. Apart from that, there are moral points to be made, including the argument that a reconciled society that has sought truth and justice is a better one to live in than one that is content with consumerism and benign apartheid.
The panel provided some of those moral arguments, including:
- It is not only humane, but a necessary step towards reconciliation, to publicly acknowledge and recognize the pain that has been visited upon victims
- Society as a whole has a responsibility to participate in this process, not just the individuals who were perpetrators or victims
- Full truth and justice are not achievable, but a genuine attempt to achieve this can contribute to a wider process of reconciliation
Bradley frankly said that the purpose of the Consultative Group’s recommendations is to ‘achieve reconciliation.’
Sadly, that goal seems at least as far away today as it did one year ago.