I was struck by Michael D Higgins’ interview with the BBC’s Fergal Keane:
He said he could not ask the families of victims to put the past behind them. Society could not afford to wipe out the memory of violence, he said. “I think that there is very significant work to do,” he said.
“Affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value to you. You are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows… we must be of assistance to each other in coming to understand how we get to a new place.
From my own reporting experience, I will always remember an interview with a former loyalist life sentence prisoner; remember it because of the words spoken and what they meant and, then, what happened next.
It was part of the debate about prisoner releases versus victims rights – and I interviewed him as we edged away from conflict and began that journey towards peace. He described to me prisoners sleeping with the victims.
“That’s the only way I can put,” he said “they sleep with the victims.”
Just think of those words – SLEEP WITH THE VICTIMS, meaning, of course, that they couldn’t sleep with their conscience – that he couldn’t sleep with his conscience.
The prisoners, he told me, “have to live with what’s happened in the past”.
Billy Giles spent long years in jail and, six months after that interview, he took his own life – no longer able to sleep with the victims, no longer able to sleep with what happened.
It put me mind of this story from the US:
Volunteers in dark green hooded sweatshirts spread out across the National Mall on Thursday, planting 1,892 small American flags in the grass between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Each flag represented a veteran who had committed suicide since Jan. 1, a figure that amounts to 22 deaths each day.
This is one of the largely unheard corollaries of war: the real distress in men like Billy Hunter and Brendan Hughes, who clearly internalised much of the distress they’d caused to others in the past.
We hear surprisingly little from these men and women, never mind their victims.
There are in fact, only a limited amount of things that can be done for them, although undoubtedly just hearing their voices and their experiences is an important part of ‘letting go’ rather than healing as such.
What we noted back in 2003 was not that far removed from what still needs to happen now:
Turning to the future cannot mean burying the past. As John Dunlop warns us, ‘It would be callous for a community to travel into the future and leave grieving people behind.’
The greatest tribute to those who have suffered, however, is to build on their sacrifices. Since the peace process began, Northern Ireland has had lavished upon it a degree of attention that dwarfs both the size of its population and the seriousness of its problems.
Presidents and prime ministers clear diaries for the leaders of parties representing a few hundred thousand people. The media follow the peace process with great respect and curiosity. Martial politicians attract attention as they spar for the cameras, stentorian-voiced.
But the world’s attention is now moving on and the mundane work of reconstruction must begin. This is not about grandiose gestures, nor sudden cures. It is both more modest and more patient.
‘Universal peace is like the desire for immortality: so difficult to achieve that religions promise immortality not before but after death,’ Umberto Eco warns us.
‘However, a small peace is like the act of a doctor who cures a wound: not a promise of immortality, but at least a way to postpone death.’
There is no fix all cure for what was done to us, or what we did to each other. Reconciliation is partial and unpredicable process. It is neither moral or right to demand it from people who have already lost so much.
We need much more of the empathy, compassion and imagination that Rowan traces here. It’s how we avoid becoming the same glassy eyed automatons that walzed us in to the troubles forty plus years ago.
And it is also how new stories of who we are and what we can do will begin to take root.