Have we Learned our own Lessons? Book Review of John Brewer’s Peace Processes

imageNorthern Ireland’s peace process has been promoted as an international success story. The Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs has its Conflict Resolution Unit, which aims to disseminate the ‘lessons’ of the Northern Ireland peace process. And some of the prominent players in our peace process have travelled abroad to other troubled spots to share their experiences.

Despite its setbacks and maddeningly slow pace, our peace process has delivered a peace of sorts and from an international comparative perspective it is one of the more ‘successful’ ones. Not surprisingly, the Northern Ireland case is one of the major examples discussed in John Brewer’s latest book, Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach (Polity, 2010).

The title of the book does not immediately indicate that it is written for a popular audience and indeed this is the case – it is an unapologetically academic book. But in it Brewer makes a case for ‘public sociology’ – a sociology that has relevance beyond the walls of the university and can offer practical insights to policy makers, practitioners, and an informed citizenry.

I think Brewer succeeds in this; and that the book can and should be read by a wider audience. Readers in Northern Ireland should be interested for two main reasons:

  • Its focus on the dynamics of ‘social’ peace processes provides insights into how ‘civil society’ (i.e. peace and reconciliation organisations, churches, etc) can promote the peace – alongside a ‘political’ peace process steered by political elites
  • Its extended case study of the way Northern Ireland has handled issues of memory, ‘truth’ and victimhood (p. 169-192) puts that ongoing process in perspective and reminds us of what we might lose if we allow ‘dealing with the past’ to slide down the agenda.

First, ‘social’ peace processes. Many people think of peace processes solely in the terms of political negotiations and the establishment of new political and economic institutions. While not discounting the importance of these, Brewer says that they are only part of the story and argues that we should also be concerned about what happens at the social level. There are particularly interesting chapters on ‘gender’ and ‘emotions’ that identify some of the issues and challenges of making the peace at a social level.

For example, in his discussion of ‘restorative justice’ Brewer notes that restorative justice programmes have been effective in some contexts, like reintegrating ex-prisoners, but claims that they rely almost exclusively on the emotions of ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’. This limits their impact among the wider population so he calls for a deliberate cultivation of hope and forgiveness. This does not mean he wants to bring Christian discourses into the public sphere – indeed, he says that often ‘Christian’ language is unproductive, especially if the conflict has had religious dimensions. Rather he thinks that public policies can promote emotions of hope and forgiveness more generally, and that this can be done through policies that promote equality and through the construction of ‘public spaces of forgiveness.’ He says,

‘Forgiveness in symbolic form is performed via public statements in the press, on television, at ‘truth’ recovery forums, such as public enquiries and ‘truth’ commissions; in civil society workshops, seminars or public lectures devoted to the topic; at citizenship education forums; during religious services, debates in parliament and political assemblies or in submissions at courts of law. … Public ‘forgiveness ceremonies’ could be devised as part of cultural (and religious) practices, and policy makers could design special spaces of forgiveness for this purpose as part of the peace process.’ (p. 137)

Second, ‘how we remember’ in Northern Ireland. The phrase ‘how we remember’ may be new to readers. Brewer uses it rather than ‘dealing with the past’ and I think that ‘how we remember’ has more positive connotations. ‘Dealing with the past’ implies that the past can be dealt with and then forgotten forever. But ‘how we remember’ allows space for people to hold on to their legitimate memories, while at the same time being open to others’ interpretations of the past (at least ideally).

Although Northern Ireland has not had an official truth commission, Brewer says that it is ‘perhaps the most advanced’ of all post-violence societies in addressing issues around memory, ‘truth’ recovery, and victimhood (p. 169). He also points out that Northern Ireland’s post-violence transition has been better-funded than any other in the world: ‘… the resources devoted to peace in Northern Ireland exceed the GDP of most other countries undergoing similar post-conflict transitions’ (p. 169).

Brewer writes favourably about the recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past, reproducing substantial descriptions of the recommendations from the Report, saying that ‘They are worth noting at length because of their potential value to other post-violence societies. … This is an impressive set of recommendations, with an even-handedness that seems suitable for the purpose and instructive for elsewhere’ (p. 182-183).

At the time when this book went to press, it must have seemed as if the Government would implement at least some of the recommendations – Brewer notes that the Government announced its support for the Report, except the provision for financial compensation for all victims. Similarly, Ronald Wells’ recent book Hope and Reconciliation (Liffey, 2010) expressed optimism that the recommendations would be heeded.

But this is looking increasingly unlikely. Apart from Owen Paterson’s recent statements on leaving the past to historians to sort out, the Consultative Group’s own website, www.cgpni.org – which once contained the full text of the report – has been allowed to expire (visitors are now redirected to a Chinese site). It is almost as if the Government hopes we will all forget about what the Consultative Group said. (At least the Report can still be accessed on a dedicated Slugger commentblog!)

This prompts me to ask: has Northern Ireland even learned the lessons from its own peace process?

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