Healing Through Remembering’s Day of Private Reflection

Today is 21st June, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This is the day selected by the Belfast-based NGO Healing Through Remembering (HTR) for a Day of Private Reflection, described by the organisation like this:

The Day of Reflection is a day for personal and private reflection on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland; a day to acknowledge the deep hurt and pain caused by the conflict, to reflect on our own attitudes, on what we might have done or might still do, and to make a personal commitment that such loss should never be allowed to happen again.  It provides a voluntary opportunity for everyone in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and further afield to reflect upon the conflict in and about Northern Ireland and the future that is before us.

To mark the day, HTR has created a space for reflection in the Linen Hall Library, which is open between 10.30-2.00 pm today. It includes an exhibition, tea and coffee, and occasional guest readings and song.

At the Irish School of Ecumenics on 683 Antrim Road in Belfast, where I work, we also have set aside a reflective space, and our garden is open to the public until 4.00 pm today. Staff and students at the Irish School of Ecumenics’ other campus in Milltown, Dublin, have created a ‘room for remembering.’ There, the film Gods and Men will be screened between 3.00-5.30, with discussion and refreshments following.

HTR’s Day of Private Reflection has been going for five years. It was conceived after HTR’s 2002 public consultation process on how we might remember our troubled past. A day of reflection was one of the recommendations.

The idea and the implementation of a Day of Private Reflection of course have their limitations – limitations of which HTR is well aware. Since 2007 HTR has produced evaluations of the Day, available on its website, which include commentary both from HTR members and those external to the organisation.

Just a sampling of some of the quotations from HTR members in the 2009 evaluation report show a healthy level of awareness of the Day’s limitations:

“The name of HTR itself is unfortunate. It is very hard to communicate. It conveys a sense of do-goodery, even religiousness… “ [HTR member]

“Reflection isn’t relevant here. Truth recovery and storytelling are what’s relevant for this demographic. And we need to see movement on these fronts before we can move forward in other areas – where can a Day of Reflection go without a baseline of fact established via truth recovery? We need a framework to reflect in, and at this point, there is no framework. I realise that the ‘Private’ aspect tries to deal with this and keep it low key. But in including that ‘Private’ bit, perhaps unwittingly, the organisation has said that there’s still a question mark hanging over why this is not an official public process. […] I’m not against the initiative, I’m for it. But like all elements of HTR, I feel that it can only go so far without the truth issue being addressed…” [HTR member]

“Do we really think that the people who were most impacted by the past 30 years, that those communities who bore the brunt of the conflict, need an orchestrated day of private reflection? Isn’t it perhaps the middle classes, and by extension the churches, the media, etc. who need reminded that something went terribly pear-shaped here?” [HTR member]

But HTR continues to promote the Day as part of a wider process of asking questions about how we are remembering the past.

There have been numerous examples, even in the last week, where debate about how we remember the past has descended into name calling (the Church of Ireland Gazette’s infamous ‘spoilt children’ editorial) and resorted to violent language, such as a recommendation on this blog that we ‘put a few more bullets’ into the Eames-Bradley Report on dealing with the past.

The Day of Private Reflection of course doesn’t provide all the answers. But my thoughts for the Day are around how we might encourage a more civil and sensitive debate about how we remember.