PI Camp: Dealing With the Past

One of the most heated discussions at Saturday’s Political Innovation (Un)Conference was on ‘What role does the truth about the past have in future political innovation?’

The session was proposed by Ciarán MacAirt, who is involved with the Families Campaign for Truth for the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.

As ever in discussions about ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland, the conversation quickly became about particular events and the ‘truth’ of what happened in those particular events. And as ever, there was plenty of disagreement about what the ‘truth’ is.

I saw the pattern of conversation move in the same way when I attended public events during the Eames-Bradley consultation on dealing with the past.

These types of conversation, of course, inevitably prevent debate from moving on to questions about devising ‘political innovations’ for dealing with the past.

But the fact that such conversations do so quickly move to particular events illustrates for me at least one central ‘truth’ about Northern Ireland’s past: people want, and in some cases need, to talk about what happened here.

Forgetting about the past, simply drawing a line under it, isn’t a realistic option. People just aren’t going to forget.

I also was fascinated by how people in the room framed the conversation. For example, some people said that the only outcome of a process for dealing with the past would be prosecutions – i.e.  Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and even Ian Paisley would end up in jail. They said this was a major risk to political stability.

Now, if truth and reconciliation processes from around the world have demonstrated anything, it is that so-called truth commissions aren’t required to end in prosecutions. The most famous case is probably the ‘amnesty for truth’ provision in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Of course, the ‘justice’ of this aspect of the South African TRC has been much contested, and I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of that here. Rather, the point is that framing the discussion in terms of prosecutions unnecessarily limits our options. No post-conflict society will ever achieve perfect ‘justice’ and some hard decisions always have to be made around issues such as immunity, amnesty and prosecutions.

The Eames-Bradley Report actually contained what might be called ‘political innovations’ – a legacy commission and a reconciliation forum. These weren’t modelled exclusively on the South African TRC, rather they were informed by post-conflict transitions from around the world and by what the Consultative Group heard during their public consultations.

I was disappointed that our group didn’t get on to discussing in depth some of the Eames-Bradley recommendations, or other ideas about what could be done. There were a few suggestions, such as one person who advocated creating an archive where people could go and tell their ‘truth’ about what happened around particular events – on the condition that they also shared one thing their ‘side’ had done that they thought was wrong.

My fear is that the longer Northern Ireland goes without some sort of truth process, the easier it becomes for competing, contradictory and most likely inflammatory stories about the past to develop in our so-called ‘communities.’ People will not have the opportunity to hear the ‘other side’s’ perspective. Regardless of whether they agree with the alternative perspectives or not, it’s better to at least be aware of them rather than wilfully ignorant.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com