Reconciliation: “Not every question will be answered”

Brian Rowan at Eamonn’s place notes that there is a difference between getting to the truth of the past, and an apology:

Everyone and every side understands that more has to be done – the questions are within what structure and within what rules? Not every question will be answered – but let’s find out what answers are possible and within what context, and let all sides do it in the here and now.

The last phrase there, the here and now is probably most prominently associated with Rogerian counselling, a theory derived from the work of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers.

It was the subject of a session in the youth and community work course I did at the Unversity of Ulster (or common or garden Poly in my day). One of our first group work sessions was a ‘here and now’ Rogerian session which caused a near meltdown in the class.

Why? Because the rule was that you could only speak in the here and now. Reference to the past and future were banned. It implied digging into what people felt at that moment, with no recourse to intellectual or other artifice.

I hesitate to say none of us trusted the motive of our facilitator. Let’s just say no one publicly took the instruction as a matter of trust. Much of the three hour session was taken up with questions (often angrily expressed) of why and how.

I’ve not encountered the technique since, although I have used other ‘here and now’ techniques that are much less psychologically invasive on the individual’s consciousness. I’m sure there were particular reasons why our reactions were so extreme.

But it seems to me that the elements that were missing between us and the course tutor of the time was a key pre-requisite of such techniques: ie, trust and commonality of purpose.

As his students, we simply didn’t trust because we had no understanding never mind ownership of our tutor’s purpose. And, despite assurances to the contrary, it’s future consequences for us.

That’s why I think such appeals when they emanate from one set of protagonists (in this case Declan Kearney of Sinn Fein), to another are destined to fail. The absense of trust is the first problem that has to be tackled.

Without that its hard to see how anything resembling reconciliation has much of a chance.

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  • BarneyT

    I am not sure you class\tutor analogy works and the trust issues that face us, with regard to Declan Kearney or anyone else. If you as students failed to develop trust or understand the purpose of the “here and now” experiment, it seems your tutor failed to set the scene and sell the exercise in the first place.

    I have to ask why in that setting would there be such distrust of a method proposed in a class environment from the tutor? Seems it was anarchy and belligerence for the sake of it and that the cause was always going to be lost. I really don’t get the lack of trust in this context or the failure to see and own the purpose came from, whereas the lack of trust in a wider NI context is entirely understandable. This is why I feel your analogy may be suited.

    There “here and now” in NI is worthy but largely not helpful on its own. It may be construed as dismissive and a plea to accept what we now have, which clearly is not appropriate. There is a lot to be said about flushing out the truth about past deeds. A failure to accept the past events as they were only fuels distrust. As an example, the PSNI is taking a curious direction at present and are at risk of returning to a not so distant inglorious policing past. I am not sure that the past deeds of the RUC were truly faced, which now fuels the present distrust of the PSNI, particularly with regard to political tit-for-tat policing.

    Whilst sadly not all questions will receive an answer, we have to ensure the right questions relating to the past are presented, no matter how painful this is for all of the bodies and organisations who took part.

  • Mick Fealty


    As students we experienced the Rogerian ‘here and now’ as a ‘trick’ to get us to reveal something of ourselves that the tutor wanted to see (to their advantage rather than ours, we assumed).

    The purpose was not made clear, nor was the reasoning for doing it. There was in effect no ‘contract’ that made the tutor answerable to us in any way. Not unlike these amorphous offers from Declan and ‘the lads’.

    I suspect we might have been more trusting of a complete stranger. I still harbour deep misgivings of such open and unruled techniques that often only work because of the manipulative skills and charisma of the facilitator.

    I think your last relates most to the organisation making the approach than the cops. At 1700 fatalities, they have the bulk of the explaining to do, if we’re to be serious about the past.

    Could it be that by emphasising on people feel in the here and now they see a means of getting people to forget what they did in the past? “You know, it sounds crazy, but it might just work.”

    Personally, I don’t think it will because it misses the real imperative of the Belfast Agreement, which is to build a politics that can make a difference to Northern Ireland first and the island second.

    But mostly I don’t think it will work for the same reasons I didn’t think the armed struggle would work either: ie, killing, maiming and (finally) torturing your fellow Irishmen and women simply cannot bring about a unity of the people.

    Rather it’s a form of manipulation of the most stupid and unproductive kind…

  • tacapall

    “Life is, by its very nature, inextricably bound with injustice, particularly in matters of communal affairs. In the face of this tragic reality the human being is forced to distinguish constantly between the minimum amount of wrong that his very survival demands, and the maximum good that he must perform in order to preserve his human image. ” Martin Buber.

    The reality is everyone involved in the past conflict deviated from the above and no one side can claim to have used the minimum amount of wrong, disputing that fact is a refusal to accept the truth.

    There is no way forward other than a general amnesty because the only way to get to the truth is when people are not afraid to reveal it, but in the end words of regret cannot be judged in the here and now manner but over time, just like reconciliation can only occur through time or when new replaces the old.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I can see the point of the experiment and why it didn’t work. You’re quite right to say, I think, that with a tutor you already knew as facilitator, there was too much baggage for it to work.

    It reminded me of a technique for group discussions the French office of my old agency developed and I wonder if it could be adapted somehow to the kind of conversations that need to happen in NI. Here’s how it worked (it could be used on any topic really – this was consumer research I was doing):
    – rather than ‘being themselves’, everyone in the group uses a name and a persona created for them by the rest of the group rather than their real name. The first 20 minutes is spent creating these personas.
    – the participants then play that person during the bulk of the group discussion – until the last 30 minutes, when everyone reveals their real name and real views.
    – in the meantime, they discuss the topic fully.
    – there are two moderators rather than one and rather than being objective in the traditional way, the moderators take positions, provoke people and sit amongst the participants rather than facing them.
    It sounds a bit odd, but the technique was used for those topics where traditional discussion groups, even creative ones, were not shedding new light on the topic and where people tended to get stuck on fixed beliefs. The theory was that it allowed people to express and explore thoughts and views that they would not usually entertain and gave them freedom to say things that might stay hidden usually. My study was about laundry (!) and we wanted to understand why a particular brand seemed to be unable to win anyone over. For us this technique worked because it freed people up to say things about the brand and about laundry that they would not have come out with as themselves. And they had the chance at the end to correct the record, as it were, and disassociate from their earlier comments. But in the meantime we’d got some really insightful stuff from them all about what was going on with the brand.
    I wonder if anyone’s tried techniques like this with getting to the ‘truths’ beneath Troubles discourses? Probably!

  • BarneyT

    It’s going to be a trade-off between truth and reconciliation AND wiping the slate clean and there are merits in both, but I am not certain which one I favour.

    The recent arrest of a leading republican in South Armagh asks more questions than it answers. Given the dissident activity and the real and apparent threat they pose (infiltrated or not) should the police not be focusing on them rather than folks that are “on side” and now thankfully see dialog and politics as the way forward. This arrest does not belong in the “wipe the slate” category and is it not in spirit in conflict with the GFA?. My first thought was it was an exercise by the PSNI to achieve perceived balance following the arrest of Bryson and Frazer.

    Being harsh, you can take any struggle, rising or protest and justify it, in pure academic terms. In NI certain actions can be argued to be valid and acceptable within a conflict. Sense can be made of an IRA attack on an army barracks, sense can be made of the army priming a device to explode when the assailants perform a maintenance check. It all can be argued to fit into the theatre of “battle”. We have all heard the phrase, a senseless act, so by extension there clearly are acts that make sense.

    Planting landmines in populated areas, landing mortars where kids played just minutes previously, bombing pubs, Omagh etc.. for me represent a discriminate attack on civilians and the collateral damage argument is a non-starter. How do you clear the decks in these circumstances and with some of the other deeds that you mentioned Mick. They have to be subject to an admission of guilt and an expression of complete and other wrong-doing outwith the “cause”. That requires exposure of the incident and an appropriate response to give healing a chance. I apply this to all sides.

    So there are actions in NI that we may be able to wipe clean but not all deeds are so easily resolved. Truth and reconciliation will inevitably lead to a “mines bigger than yours” debate, but recognition and admission of the crimes and deeds will serve us better than just forgetting what happened in the past. The bloodletting effect will bring about some level of adjustment. The apology and the recognition of the Bloody Sunday events had a positive effect more than not.

    On the subject of Provisional IRA membership or membership of any paramilitary group that has now disbanded and ceased to be as required by the GFA, should we not now have an amnesty?

  • aquifer

    I can forgive if I wish, but nobody can insist that I forget, or that I must remember or respect anyone’s pet narrative.

    I get sick of people trailing around their little tales of victimhood, like lucky charms. And like those charms, the precious metal comes off with a rub and reveals the base.

    Perhaps luckiest of all are the young, who don’t have to excuse anything.