Lord Eames on Moving Forward from a Divided Past

[Apologies for missing a timeliness deadline, as this event took place last October 2011, but main theme that follows remains relevant:]

Lord Eames, Former Anglican Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh

The North Down Association of the Alliance Party hosted an evening talk by Lord (Robin) Eames, former Anglican Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, and who served as a Co-Chairman of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland.


The talk was entitled, “Moving forward from a divided past”, and Lord Eames covered many of his experiences of the past 20 years.

Above all, he said, it is people that he remembers. At the outset he made it clear that we can’t move on as a society without considering those who have lost.

He paid tribute to those who have demonstrated courage, especially at the political level.

Lord Eames maintained that “people are basically the same”, except the labels that we put on them, which he did not approve of: “Emotions, tears, sadness know no labels.”

For him, the real question is not what caused the Troubles — in which “ordinary people were wedged in a nightmare” — but instead how we dealt with the conflict:

“The time had come … for a better way of solving our problem (through a peace process). For how long can any society bury its dead for a cause most didn’t believe in?”

And who were the victims? Lord Eames cited the 2006 Order, which states that a victim is “anyone who has been affected adversely…” He mooted, “Are those in Bangor victims?” Yes, everyone is a victim of living in a violent society, he answered.

Lord Eames spoke about his work on the Consultative Group on the Past, making specific reference to the recommendation of a Legacy Commission and powers to investigate past events:

“Unless those in government — national and local — are prepared to grasp the nettle of dealing with the past, we will always be dealing with inquiries.”

Furthermore, he suggested that for five years, there be some structure produced, akin to a Legacy Commission, to address this issue, in order to then draw a line in the sand at the end.

In regards to the controversial recommendation for a compensation payment to victims, Lord Eames said that at the time the Consultative Group was being urged by politicians to do something for the benefit of victims: “Perhaps that report was too soon. I still believe it has the seeds for the way forward.”

He described that while Northern Ireland has equality and human rights as the base of its legislation and political structures, it will be the hearts of its people that turn the page of the past: “You can’t legislate for reconciliation.”

During the Q&A session, I followed up on remarks Lord Eames made about forgiveness, and whether the forgiver must demand or expect an expression of regret from the one asking for forgiveness for their actions. I didn’t mean this question to be profound, but the former Archbishop remarked that it was.

The issue is one of sincerity in the intent of asking for forgiveness. In his thoughtful reply, Lord Eames described an occasion whereby a couple of perpetrators spoke to him, seeking forgiveness from the families who suffered by their actions. He found the families and relayed the request, who replied that if only they knew about their family life, more about them, could they gauge the sincerity of their request.

That is, it is important to be able to see the perspective of the other side. How forgiveness becomes more possible through an engagement, a relationship between the parties:


Responding on behalf of the Alliance Party was Dr Stephen Farry MLA, Minister for Employment and Learning. Dr Farry made the point, “We cannot move ahead and build a reconciled society unless at the same time we address what did happen in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Stephen Farry MLA

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