A proposal to help us deal with the past: an effective form of storytelling inside a legal structure

The context

In dealing with the consequences of the conflict, we must maintain a focus on the challenge to build a peaceful, stable and shared society in Northern Ireland, on this island and between these islands. Embedding a sense of interdependence among the people—a vital foundation upon which to build a successful society—should not just be an aspiration but an imperative. Success in this regard would surely be the greatest tribute we could pay to those who died or suffered loss and injury.

Let me begin by painting some context. First of all, we must be realistic and honest with the victims of violence, as to what can be achieved within the political reality of our ‘peace process’.

In that light, a comment by Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankill Road bomb in 1993, is relevant: ‘Without taking anything away from the personal responsibility of those who planted that bomb, I would also blame the sectarian society that created their mindsets.’

Once the conflict broke out in the late 1960s, many young men and women acted in a manner contrary to their behaviour in a normal society. Harry’s story emphasises this.

Harry’s brother was murdered by the army and it is difficult to understand in the circumstances why the soldiers responsible, when prosecuted, were not convicted. Harry, a teenager at the time, was understandably deeply embittered by the loss of his elder brother. Some republicans began to encourage him to seek revenge. Fortunately, his father recognised what was happening and packed him off to the United States, where he stayed for 18 months. During that time his understandable hurt eased. Otherwise Harry would accept he could have easily been drawn down the path taken by so many that led them into violence.

It is part of our tragic history that too many young people did not escape such influences, blighting their lives as well as those of their victims. This is not to excuse an individual’s actions, including those of some members of the security forces, but it does help us understand why some acted in the way they did during the madness that we call the ‘troubles’.

The components of conflict

Now let us explore the sectarianism and cultural racism (variously anti-Irish and anti-British) which created the foundations for the conflict and, indeed, sustained it. This has the following main elements:—

Exclusive concepts of identity

To define Irishness or Britishness in exclusive ways ignores the reality of the existence of the two main traditions on this island, never mind the increasing diversity of its people, and so is hardly conducive to building an interdependent, peaceful and stable society. A variation on the words of the Ulster poet, John Hewitt, suggest a more inclusive approach and one that is properly reflective of the ‘mongrel’ nature of our make-up. Hewitt described himself thus:

A Belfast man

An Ulster man

An Irishman and British

And those last two are interchangeable

And I am European

And anyone who demeans any one part of me demeans me as a person.

These words help define our Northern Irishness and offer a fairly good template which can be adapted to reflect our increasingly ethnically diverse and hence more socially complex society.

Imagination of the ‘Other’

A major flaw in the construction of difference was the labelling of whole communities that you were opposed to as dangerous and damaging. In our society we too rarely challenged the stereotypes that we were given about the ‘other’ side. The idea that those on the ‘other’ side all felt the same way about conflict and wanted the same things was a nonsense but nonetheless a ‘reality’ in too many unchallenged minds. That imagination also included a middle class who saw the marginalised as the cause of conflict without realising they too played a defining role. A rebuilt society must challenge such myopia and create a space in which identities are more personal, as opposed to fixated upon mythic groups.

Religious intolerance

As Ghandi once said, ‘When I read the scriptures I see Christ. When I meet Christians I don’t!’ If he had visited Ireland he might well have expressed such a view or as the Dalai Lama did say: ‘Nowhere else in this world do two groups of Christians fight.’ Ireland has provided examples of both the best and worst of religion. Killing your neighbour is certainly not at the core of the Christian message. Loving and treating your neighbour as you yourself would like to be treated are and show a better way of sharing the future—one where relationships are built rather than being destroyed.

Politics based on flawed ideologies

Politics, it is said, is about the pursuit of power. In addition it is too often about the manipulation of the masses by the relatively few, for their own benefit rather than that of the wider society, through populist and short-term policies.

In the future all sectors of our society should be more demanding, to ensure that those practising politics do so in a constructive way to secure the common good. In the past the politics of this island too often promoted fear, exclusion, division and victimhood through mutually exclusive nationalisms based on hatred of the other, rather than normal, left/right, issue-based policies. Those who simply wave a flag should be challenged on the paucity of their arguments and their inability to deal with the real issues that affect people’s daily lives.

In the absence of the Civic Forum, the various interest groups that shape civic society—such as employers’ organisations, the trade unions, the third sector, sporting bodies, churches, the media and education—need to play an active and constructive oppositional role, as ‘critical friends’ to elected representatives.

The constitutional issue can also be addressed by purely peaceful means, by building relationships rather than destroying them and through inclusion rather than exclusion. To argue for a Northern Ireland for all or a North of Ireland for all is the right thing to do, as well as strategically making sense depending on one’s political perspective on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. We should show little tolerance for any other method used.

Social structures

Leading separate lives is hardly conducive to a peaceful and stable society. Separate education, religion culture and sport, and other aspects of a divided society, meant it was easy to demonise the other, as they were strangers. There was a failure to address issues such as discrimination, housing and gerrymandering. The Civil Rights Movement was, in its purest arguments, about making Northern Ireland a better place as opposed to the violent campaign of the IRA, which was about undermining and overthrowing the State as well as driving the ‘British’ into the sea.

Poverty and unemployment also create fertile ground for those promoting extremism. So too does a well-heeled group whose material position makes them immune to the realities of live for many. For the middle classes there is a poverty of both the mind and leadership. Hence building a strong economy and an inclusive society will play a vital role in building a shared and better future. A clear commitment needs to be given to that goal as an absolute imperative.


The history of Ireland and the relationships between these islands has too often, though by no means exclusively, been one of violence resulting in human tragedy and damaged relations. In a region with little more than 1½ million people the ‘troubles’ resulted in over 3,600 deaths, thousands more injured and over 20,000 imprisoned (over 12,000 republicans, over 8,000 loyalists). There was also a substantial dislocation of the population in areas of Belfast and Londonderry/Derry in particular and ethnic cleansing in some areas, leaving a legacy of a ‘Balkanised’ region. Its physical manifestations include some 100 ‘peace walls’ and other communal barriers throughout Northern Ireland.

As we look to the future we have a choice. We can either work to break down the barriers, rebuild relationships and construct new ones or do nothing and somehow expect our society not to revisit violent conflict at some stage in the future. If we should have learned anything in Northern Ireland, however, it is that every death causes a ripple of hurt that passes down through the generations.

It is also worthwhile setting out the responsibility for the deaths, taken from the volume Lost Lives:

Republican paramilitaries 2,148

Loyalist paramilitaries 1,071

British Army                                  301


RUC 52

In turn, the following were killed:

Civilians 2,051

Army 503


RUC 312

Republican paramilitaries 394

Loyalist paramilitaries 157

Loyalist paramilitaries killed around 26 members of the IRA, while the IRA killed some 26 loyalists. Each organisation killed more of ‘their own’ than did anyone else.


Dealing with the past must be supported by a strong commitment to reconciliation, to counter-balance the potential for those exposed by the process adopted to promote further conflict to cover their past actions. Yet our political classes too often take divisive positions, while reconciliation projects are driven from the ground up through various organisations and individuals, often at a very local level, lacking the political leadership required.

At the same time it is important that we recognise and hold to internationally recognised norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In this respect I would suggest a ‘Statement of Wrongs’ should be drawn up. It was wrong where certain police officers and soldiers acted outside of the law and it was wrong of the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries to use violence to further their aims. It was also wrong to promote exclusive identities of Irishness and Britishness and to feed the hatred of sectarianism and cultural racism. It was also wrong to silence those whose identity was more nuanced—those who could accept an Irish and a British dimension to their lives.

Such individuals as Maurice Hayes, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Rev John Dunlop, Baroness May Blood, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, Baroness Onora O’Neill, Father Gerry Reynolds, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley could be asked by civic society to draft this statement. The alternative is to continue the myth that the murders of Bloody Sunday, Kingsmills, Shankill, Greysteel or Warrenpoint and so many other such incidents, were justified.

Using the model of the Leveson inquiry into the press hacking scandal, with agreed terms of reference, again drawn up by the above group, an effective form of storytelling inside a legal structure could be easily established at reasonable cost. Bearing in mind it would be their version of the truth, our society would hear at first hand the experiences of those families so tragically affected by the madness of our conflict.

In conjunction with such an inquiry, there could be further consultation to determine how best to bring those who acted outside the law to account, or to not do so—bearing in mind the state’s responsibilities under the European Convention on Human Rights and, in particular, article 2 guaranteeing the right to life.

It could be structured thus:

  1. There would be a panel of three judges, one of whom could be from outside the United Kingdom or Ireland.
  2. Lawyers would be appointed to assist in the preparation and presentation of the evidence.
  3. Witness evidence would be covered by qualified privilege, to enable as full disclosure as possible. While some names could be included in statements to be put before the judges, there could be restrictions on the use of names in the open forum unless those persons had already been convicted. Contempt proceedings could be brought against anyone who breached the rules.
  4. The number of witnesses would be restricted to those seriously injured or one member of the family of those killed (father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, spouse).
  5. Each witness would also be asked to give an opinion on how our society should deal with the legal obligations imposed under the European Convention on Human Rights, in respect of bringing those who acted outside the law to justice—bearing in mind that to do so properly would in all probability make it difficult to sustain the current structure of the political process.
  6. The judges would also make recommendations arising out of the inquiry as to how best the ECHR obligations could be met.

A Day of Private Reflection has already been held, being the 21st June, and it should be continued and its profile increased. The day could include a ‘Promise’ or ‘Statement of Commitment’—to be made by individuals, in schools, in churches and so on—to our society and in particular the victims of the ‘troubles’, that we will work to ensure that we never again allow violence to be used as a means of determining relationships between the people of this island.

The Historical Enquiries Team, the Police Ombudsman’s Office, the Coroner’s Office, the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service would continue with their respective investigations into cases before them. The inquiry proposed could make recommendations as to how the investigations and justice process should continue after the conclusion of its hearings.

Where it is possible apologies should be issued by the state, through an agreed structure including the Retired Police Officers’ Association and an army equivalent, for any deaths in which they have been involved and the person killed was entirely innocent. Such acknowledgment is important to remove any resulting stigma.

Loyalist and republican paramilitaries, as well as the security services when they acted outside the rule of law, should be encouraged to unambiguously apologise for their past actions. However to say ‘sorry, but it was justified’ is surely unacceptable if we are genuinely striving to ensure that our children are not to repeat the mistakes of our past. A fulsome apology would contribute to reconciliation to some degree.

In ‘dealing with the past’ so far we have stumbled through in an unsatisfactory and disjointed way, with an imbalance to the investigations, inquiries and inquests that have been or are to be carried out. This is unsustainable and if not managed fairly could destabilise the progress that has been made by our society to date.

Concluding comments

One cannot equate the bomber with the bombed. Having said that, because of the mess that our society got into, it is important that all of those who suffered, no matter who they are, should be looked after. That would be part of ensuring that we take this opportunity, so that never again does this island turn to violence to resolve its political or social differences.

At times one wonders whether we have asked too much of ourselves in what we have had to accept, rightly or wrongly, to move our society away from conflict. The words of Michael Longley in his poem ‘Ceasefire’ perhaps best capture this, when King Priam asks for his son Hector’s body to be released to him:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Our child is Northern Ireland and so many victims have quietly allowed our Peace Process to unfold and for that they should be thanked. Through the suggestions in this paper I hope they might help to ensure that important norms are established which create a foundation for a genuinely shared future for all of us.

We might also reflect on the words of Krystyna Chiger, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Asked in a recent interview whether she bore any resentment to the Germans, she replied: ‘I don’t feel any anger towards the younger generation. They should not suffer because of what their grandparents and parents did.’

Many of us have much to be angry about. But the challenge is surely to ensure that we do not let that anger shape the views of our children, to the extent that it blights their future as well as ours.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally prepared and published by Trevor Ringland under the auspices of Platform for Change.