Journey Towards Healing: Do Acknowledgement and Apology have a Role to Play in Northern Ireland?

My last post was about Prof. John Brewer’s lecture at the conclusion of a conference called ‘Journey Towards Healing: Trauma and Spirituality – an International Dialogue,’ held 10-11 March at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.

I chose to focus on Brewer’s provocative talk in my first post about the event, but his critique of the institutional churches was not the whole story of the conference. In fact, my post could overshadow the quality and the variety of public debate that was facilitated at the conference.

You can get a taste of that in the discussion with key speakers at the conference, which was broadcast yesterday on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence (chapter 6, Dealing with Trauma Conference).

As Brewer remarked, the conference itself is an example of what has been rare in Northern Ireland: cross-fertilisation between the churches, other civil society groups, journalists, and academics.

Friday’s workshop by local group Healing Through Remembering (HTR), co-presented by Kate Turner, Alan Wardle, Kieran McAvoy and Geraldine Smyth, focused on the role of acknowledgement and apology in Northern Ireland’s post-violence transition.

In 2006, HTR prepared a discussion paper and proposal, ‘Acknowledgement and its Role in Preventing Future Violence.’ Much of the presentation drew on this paper, which read, in part:

We propose that all organisations and institutions in civil and political society [for example, churches, political parties, the media, the business community, trade union and voluntary and community sectors, health services, judiciary, police, educational bodies and republican and loyalist organisations], as well as the UK and Republic of Ireland governments, should engage in a process of acknowledgement. The overall aim of such a process should be to help prevent the re-emergence of violent political conflict. The process should seek to:

  • produce a diverse but realistic and practical series of commitments to building a new, peaceful society;
  • increase self-confidence for participating organisations in moving forward to a new society;
  • produce narratives that are realistic and explicit about the impact of the violent conflict and that emphasise the need to avoid it in the future;
  • encourage the two governments to give a realistic and sensitive account of their roles during the conflict;
  • mark definitively the end of the violent conflict; and
  • increase knowledge and understanding of the range of perspectives on the conflict and the desired nature of future society.

The HTR paper has a much more detailed discussion about what acknowledgement is and is not. Suffice to say here that the authors define acknowledgement as ‘organisations throughout society … take[ing] responsibility for their actions during the conflict’ (p. 1), believing that as part of a wider process this can promote the healing of individuals and communities.

HTR’s recommendations echo what happened in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where institutions were invited to submit accounts of their actions during apartheid. Some of these accounts, such as the one produced by the Dutch Reformed Church, acknowledged the institutions’ responsibility in supporting apartheid. As of yet, HTR’s recommendations have not been taken up by similar institutions in Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland has had some public acts of acknowledgement and apology. Kieran McAvoy, Professor of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s, has been counting apologies, and presented the following figures:

  • 13 by state agencies
  • 15 by the provisional IRA or Sinn Fein
  • 3 by loyalist paramilitary organisations
  • 1 by a unionist politician

He noted that not all of these apologies are effective or sincere, indeed – some of them come off as ‘apologies of justification’, which serve the interests of the organisation rather than promote healing among victims and survivors.

Dr Geraldine Smyth, Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, took up the question of what the churches have done in the areas of acknowledgement and apology. Like Brewer, she was critical of the churches’ behaviour during the conflict, saying that:

‘Christians were not sufficiently self-reflective and did not relate to those around us with sufficient depth. … There was no room for ambiguity or self-doubt … and religion functioned as a [political] ideology.’

She claimed that it is vital for the churches to acknowledge this publicly, but said that if the churches embark on this project separately, it will not be as powerful.

For instance, a particular denomination might produce an analysis demonstrating how its theologies supported (or at the very least, did not challenge) division and conflict.

But Smyth said this would still perpetuate the churches’ tendencies to see only their own partial perspectives, and that they would still ‘fail to see the other’s face.’

She recommended that if the churches were to begin a process of reflection and acknowledgement that it should be done together, ecumenically, if you will. This would not just give the process more credibility, but, I would add – would be a more authentically Christian option.