The idea of a truth process in Northern Ireland is gaining credibility. But it’s not without its problems, as GARY KENT reports.
The Irish republican leader Gerry Adams is the latest politician to raise the possibility of a truth commission in Northern Ireland, after a generation of conflict still known euphemistically as “the Troubles”. At the same time, however, the Sinn Fein leader denied that he had ever been a member of the IRA. Given that IRA membership is illegal, this wasn’t a great surprise but it does illustrate that truth is a rare and dangerous commodity in Northern Ireland.
The truth about the Troubles is still a battleground, judging from competing House of Commons motions. The first, initiated by the veteran pro-nationalist parliamentarian, Kevin McNamara, calls for an independent inquiry into the assassination of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, while the second, from the DUP’s Gregory Campbell demands an inquiry into the role of the Irish government in funding the Provisional IRA in 1969/70. Never the twain shall meet.
Various Northern Ireland politicians have toyed with the notion of a truth process. A leading unionist once raised the issue with SDLP leaders who warned against going down such a divisive road, while themselves promoting inquiries into Bloody Sunday and the murders of lawyers Rosemary Nelson and Finucane.
The British government is reported to be following the debate closely and might act if there were general acceptance. Various anti-Provo commentators have also raised the issue out of frustration that the Provos are exploiting one-sided inquiries to smear and incapacitate their old enemies. However, whatever their tactical reasons, the IRA’s recent surprising apologies – for Bloody Friday, and to their “non-combatant victims” – and the 1994 expression of abject remorse by the loyalists for their innocent victims, are steps forward.
More than 20 countries have embarked on some form of truth process, ranging from Uganda to Argentina and South Africa to Germany, the details of which are explored in Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity by Priscilla Hayner (Routledge NY 2001).
Hayner’s work was used by the Healing through Remembering project based in Northern Ireland (www.healingthroughremembering.org), as was a report – All Truth is Bitter – by Alex Boraine, former deputy chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The South African truth process, which looms large in this debate, largely focused on one means – recovering truth through formal hearings at which wrong-doers confessed their crimes in return for immunity from prosecution.
The Healing through Remembering project was independently funded and directed by a broad-based board which included former republican and loyalist activists and victims, as well as key figures in Northern Ireland civil society.
Their key aim was to develop “our own locally-owned solutions” to “remember the events connected with the conflict in and about Northern Ireland so as to individually and collectively contribute to the healing of the wounds of our society”.
It’s a substantial, sensitive and thoughtful report, which recommends six key actions: establish a network of current initiatives; collect testimonies as part of a story-telling process to form an historic archive; hold an annual Day of Reflection (possibly on a Bank Holiday); establish a permanent living memorial museum; get key actors in the conflict to acknowledge their responsibilities, which could lead to public apologies and be the “first and necessary step” towards truth recovery; and set up a representative initiative to implement the report’s findings.
The report tackles some intensely practical questions about managing truth in a bitterly divided society. Should there be one or more memorials? Would they be vandalised? If they included names, who would be included since, as one of the submissions put it, “there is no clearer way of defining the conflict than through naming the victim”? Some would object to victims and murderers being remembered on the same day.
The candid report recognises the tension between the desire to address the hurt of the past and the wish to ignore them. It says that “the line between risk and opportunity is a tenuous one” since “leaving the past untouched could help a society make an artificial break and truly move into a new order”, but “leaving the past untouched may result in it continuing to surface in the future, particularly during times of political tension”.
It is a tempting prospect but two major considerations weigh heavily against a truth process. The first is that the wounds are too fresh and opening them up so soon will make them worse. The second is that Northern Ireland is a very small place where many people have been directly affected, and where victims and victimisers live cheek by jowl. A friend says that he doesn’t want to know who killed his cousin because the murderer could be a near neighbour. Illegal retribution could result in some cases.
Take an illustrative example. Imagine that Eamon Collins, former IRA intelligence officer and supergrass, who was bludgeoned to death by his former comrades, was still alive. Imagine that he was still working for Customs and Excise, and still the trade union representative for his colleagues. Imagine, then, the impact on them of learning that he had used his position to set up other colleagues for murder, and that he had been granted immunity and been allowed to keep his job in return for testifying. Magnify this, and the scale of the potential problem becomes obvious and insuperable, for now.
The Healing through Remembering report sensibly concedes that its recommendations are all some way off, but it makes the crucial point that “engaging in the debate about how to deal with the past is in itself a way of dealing with the past”.
Northern Ireland may one day be able to draw a line under its past and even become a beacon for the rest of the world in how to remember its history and effect reconciliation.