Cheryl Lawther – Truth, Denial and Transition: Northern Ireland and the Contested Past, Book Review

lawther3Cheryl Lawther’s Truth, Denial and Transition: Northern Ireland and the Contested Past (Routledge, 2014) makes a timely contribution to debates about ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland, providing insights into why unionist political elites, loyalist ex-combatants and members of the security forces have consistently opposed truth recovery processes.

Lawther is a Lecturer in Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, and this is an academic book. It is situated in the field of ‘transitional justice’ (it is the ninth book in Routledge’s transitional justice series). From an international perspective, it is billed on the back cover as ‘the first substantive effort to concentrate on the opponents of truth recovery rather than its advocates.’

Lawther is correct that the academic study of transitional justice has focused primarily on the benefits of truth recovery processes. That doesn’t mean that academics have overlooked the challenges and difficulties of truth recovery and its aftermath. Indeed, what is probably the world’s most widely-acclaimed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) has now been extensively critiqued.

Lawther’s conclusions are based on her analysis of more than 40 ‘elite’ interviews with politicians from the main unionist and loyalist parties, policing representatives, academics and members of civil society. They were conducted between March and October 2009, a fruitful period for discussion, as it was just months after the publication of the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past (January 2009). The analysis in the book is up-to-date, including developments up to the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks in 2013.

The book features five substantive chapters in which Lawther draws on the interview material to explore this group’s (hereafter referred to as PUL elites, for convenience’s sake) opposition to dealing with the past. Various reasons for opposition – she calls them ‘five themes that can structure opposition to truth recovery’ (p. 157-158) are explored in these chapters, which include extensive quotes from interviewees:

Truth, Denial and Blamelessness

PUL elites tended to articulate a singular interpretation of truth, in which ‘the actions of unionist political elites or the security forces did not contribute to or perpetuate the conflict in Northern Ireland’ (49). This has made it difficult for PUL elites to recognise possible human rights violations by the state, and led ‘to an equation between dealing with the past and apportioning ‘blame’ and responsibility for the conflict …’ (49). To put it starkly, PUL elites see their community as blameless victims, and see efforts to deal with the past as an exercise in blaming the blameless.

Truth, Politics and Victimhood

PUL elites made ‘rigid and highly polarised’ distinctions between ‘innocent victims’ and ‘guilty combatants’ (p. 71). Most rejected the inclusive definition of victim in the 2006 Victims and Survivors Order, claiming it created ‘moral equivalence’ between paramilitaries, the security forces, and civilians. Attempts to create a formal truth process are therefore interpreted as a direct challenge to ‘their claim to innocent victimhood’ (p. 72).

Truth, Trust and (Re-) Writing the Past

PUL elites articulated a deep distrust of republicans and their perceived agenda for dealing with the past. This, Lawther recognises, is understandable, given republican paramilitary violence against the PUL community throughout the Troubles. But PUL elites are especially suspicious that republicans will use a formal truth process to ‘re-write’ history, by ensuring that the focus is primarily upon the actions of the state and refusing to be forthcoming about their own role in the violence.

Truth, Confidence and Loyalty

Noting that in many contexts victims and survivors view truth recovery processes as an opportunity for their ‘voice’ to be heard, Lawther argues that PUL elites are not confident that this will be the case for their community. She identifies ‘a profound lack of confidence among unionists and loyalists in the power of their arguments and in their capacity to participate in a truth process,’ which is linked to the claim that ‘ ‘loyal’ pro-state actors face particular difficulties in terms of not being able or willing to criticise the state – an inevitable part of any truth process and being able to ‘sell’ their story’ (p. 125).

Truth, Sacrifice and Betrayal

PUL elites spoke strongly about sacrifice, particularly on the part of the security forces, and felt that proposed processes for dealing with the past would minimise that sacrifice at the expense of prioritising ‘republicans’ demands for truth and justice’ (p. 154). Further investigations of collusion would betray the memory of the dead and their sacrifice and suffering.

Readers will doubtless have varying degrees of sympathy for or identification with the reasons which Lawther identifies. But whether one agrees or disagrees with the assessment of the PUL elites, Lawther’s assessment of their reasons should at the very least increase readers’ understanding of why they are reluctant to engage in processes for dealing with the past. It is not simply because they are trying to hide something.

But at the same time as Lawther provides insightful descriptions of PUL elites’ perspectives, she does not agree with their analysis that a wider, formal process for dealing with the past would confirm their worst fears. She agrees with journalist Brian Rowan, reproducing his assessment that ‘The past will only be a republican project and process if others allow it to be’ (p. 101).

In her conclusion, Lawther makes her case that PUL elites should take ‘political responsibility’ and help to create a wider process for dealing with the past (p. 161):

‘ … engaging in a truth process should be seen as an opportunity for unionists to truly take ‘ownership’ of the past – and the future. For example, at the most obvious level … truth recovery has, to date, focused overwhelmingly on the actions of state actors and has fitted with a narrative that puts the unlawful and inhumane deployment of state power at the root cause of the conflict (Dawson 2007). Yet, republican paramilitaries bear responsibility for the greatest loss of life during the conflict. Without a formal truth process, truth recovery will continue to be conducted through the coroner’s courts, OPONI and the HET – essentially a state-centric approach, despite the fact non-state actors were responsible for 90% of deaths. Likewise … the objective of a truth process is to challenge the denial of past wrongs – a thickening of the historical narrative that encompasses the actions of all parties to the conflict (Ignatieff 1996: Cohen 2001). For loyalist ex-combatants who fear scapegoating and criminalisation, engaging in a truth process could provide an opportunity to contexualise and complicate their involvement in the past (Shirlow and McEvoy 2008). Similarly, to deal with the past is not to forget or silence its victims but to remember and to honour their experiences (Minow 1998). A truth process offers an opportunity to indelibly write those names, dates and places into the historical record. In response to the question of ‘where are our inquiries’, for those victims who want to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, a formal truth process could provide some answers, and for many victims, more answers than are available at present (CVSNI 2012).

For the security forces … there is frustration and anger over continued calls to investigate allegations of collusion and other aspects of policing during the conflict (Lawther 2010). … A formal truth process could provide a forum for a definitive examination of these issues and ultimately draw a line under historical investigations. If such a body was accompanied by an amnesty or measure of limited immunity, and which according to members of the CGP, is in fact supported by former members of the RUC, it would not only remove the threat of prosecution, but allow former members of the security forces to tell their experiences of policing during the conflict, and contribute to a fuller understanding of the environment in which they worked.’

  • Tacapall

    “providing insights into why unionist political elites, loyalist
    ex-combatants and members of the security forces have consistently
    opposed truth recovery processes”

    Indeed not much has changed up to a few days ago, the silence emanating from the various unionist politicians who stand shoulder to shoulder with those loyalist paramilitaries who would use guns iron bars and hatchets to intimidate those who they disagree with or even the PSNI who call a sectarian murder attempt aggravated burglary. No squeals of broken ceasefires, no hate crime, and no calls for arrests. Why dont we just call a spade a spade – Unionist politicians are hypocrites.

  • Michael Henry

    ” The past will only be a Republican project and process if others allow it to be “-

    The truth is out there just waiting to be told- if some don’t want the truth to be made public it’s because they are running away from it -they can’t blame the rest of us for looking to know the full story of Collusion and wanting to see those who killed the Civilians on Bloody Sunday getting their collars felt-etc-

  • Zig70

    Part of is that the truth isn’t a solid thing as some folk like it to be. All we have are stories and everyone’s is worth recording and even if they are inaccurate, they capture the emotion at the time which is as important. More than likely whenever Ireland does reunite, there will only be one story people are interesting hearing and I think the unionist elite know that. The time is now to get the story out before we get too much foggy dew. The big thing that is mis-managed is the expectations that the story telling will result in anything else other than academic interest or that the majority of us care to know the details.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Unionism and, most particularly, the British governments of the day can’t handle the truth. A government colluding and orchestrating the murder of its own citizens. That’s almost Stalinesque.

  • Morpheus

    So the PUL elites don’t have any sense of reality – gotcha

  • Mister_Joe

    Part of the reason is likely the belief by some that there never was anything rotten in the “state” before those pesky Civil Righters, infiltrated or created by the IRA, started complaining. Full “truth recovery” would have to go way back beyond the start of the so called troubles. There could be any number of starting points; for example, the passing of the “Flags and emblems” Act back in the 50s. Pick your own. I have my own story as to why I am living abroad rather than in Northern Ireland.

  • Morpheus

    Maybe start with the gun-running and the birth of the state and move on from there, plenty of blame and truth to go around

  • barnshee

    ,” despite the fact non-state actors were responsible for 90% of deaths.”

  • Morpheus

    Is there a point coming any time soon?

  • Red Lion

    Congratulations Gladys on competing for NI at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in the Marathon, I thought u did remarkably well and was simultaneously very proud and mildly jealous.
    Thought u would have got more of a mention on Slugger- why not use the opportunity to tell us more about your experience, especially some behind the scenes stuff.
    Well done again

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I say bring on a truth commission or whatever.

    As it stands, in the eyes of the world the unionists and the British Army and British Government are to blame for everything anyway.

    It’s mildly amusing to me to answer some queries on NI’s conflict to foreigners

    e.g. In Croatia:

    “How many people die in your war?”
    “Erm, about 3700 I think’

    The response is usually supressed mirth (and a crocodile Dundee-esque comparison; “That’s not a war, THIS is a war…”)
    or bafflement;

    ” You mean each month?”

    They’ve bought the old ‘oppressive murderous British’ line but can’t stack the figures with it.

    (Not to mention the ever increasing number of people who DIED in the famine, last recount I heard from a well read Irish guy in an bar down here was 2.5 million dead…)

    If a truth commission shows that not ALL army and policemen were out bludgeoning people daily and in droves then so much the better, it’s better than the current global view (from what I can discern).

    And if you feel compelled to list incidents where police and army have behaved murderously and violently then please allow me to highlight that you’ve then missed the point of my post, I’m very aware of these instances as they are highlighted routinely on slugger….

  • barnshee

    “despite the fact non-state actors were responsible for 90% of deaths.”

  • Thanks, Red Lion. I generally keep writing about my own running to a minimum, but freelancer Tim Martin did a story recently you can read here:

  • leslie

    The arguments for a truth commission are not convincing to me. I don’t see that ‘drawing lines under’ or ‘moving on from’ are anything other than vacuous phrases. Some people never ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one. I can appreciate the need for a ‘body’ to be properly buried and a graveside to grieve by – beyond that the only explanation is The Troubles. They happened and now they happen less. The whole process of a truth commission seems like a pretend counselling catharsis in a legal setting.

  • Tacapall

    Obviously you never suffered the lost of a loved one due to the actions of state sponsored terrorism nor experienced the hurt caused by that same states lack of concern or action when clear evidence was uncovered that innocent citizens were being murdered with the help of members of the RUC and British intelligence for no other reason other than tactical advantage. If there is no truth commission then the future holds challenges in the highest courts for the British government to expose their role and the states role in the targeting and killings of innocent citizens.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    That’s a bit of a crap response Tac. You want to play the state sponsored narrative when the terrorists (mainly republican but also loyalists) were murdering the vast majority. I see the irony of state sponsored murder (per my comment above) – to my mind it’s worse than just straight out sectarian deaths, and it went a long way in justifying those murderous republican and loyalist cowards. However I don’t like the “you don’t know how it feels” then here’s my narrow minded narrative. As to a truth commission it’s just another expensive, redundant waste of time for more talking heads to get together (QUB and UU self professed conflict experts – read tossers) and spend our taxes on something that will only deliver a repeat of past pain. Easy for me to say, but let the past go, the dead are dead and they aren’t coming back. We keep looking backwards and keep missing what’s in the present and the potential for the future.

  • leslie

    Tacapall Thank you for your response. You are correct – I have never suffered the losses of which you speak. What you do not say is quite how a truth commission heals the ‘hurt’ that is felt .What might be experienced as beneficial by one, might be seen as provocative by another. You might then end up with an intensification of distress rather than its alleviation. I remain unconvinced. The ‘past’ is the fatal weakness of NI. Endless crimes have been committed in its name. Better to live in the present.

  • Tacapall

    Leslie I dont think a truth commission will heal the hurt but it would shine a bright light of reflection on a dark chapter of our history. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to people we employed to protect and enforce the law actually being the same people who controlled the murder gangs, picked the targets and allowed the murderers free reign to do the same again and again. The past is indeed the fatal weakness of Ireland but unfortunately its also called history you either learn from the past and make changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again or you turn a blind eye and keep making the same mistakes over and over.

  • Tacapall

    Says it all Serg when after accepting the state was involved in murdering it own citizens via their puppets in both republican and loyalist paramilitaries you label the same sock puppets as the terrorists and cowards. I think thats exactly why we need a truth commission and we dont need expensive self confessed conflict experts from QUB or UU to get the truth we already employ people who’s job is supposedly to discover the truth, bring justice and enforce the law so I wouldn’t imagine it would be a waste of taxpayers money unless of course we just abandon the notion that the scales of justice are evenly balanced.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Tac – you’ll have to explain the first sentence to me as it makes no sense. Are you saying the State was responsible for the majority of murders during the Troubles? Here’s me thinking it was just your common or garden republican and loyalist terrorist scumbag. So you want the police, the strong arm of the state that you dislike so much to establish the “truth”. That’s a tad naive fella. A Truth Commission would deliver nothing and the State can’t afford one because it can’t handle the truth. Time to look ahead and stop defining yourself with the past.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Tac – you don’t want a Truth Commission, you want a Blame Commission. Where’s the value in that? As Leslie says it will stoke the flames of past hatred and precipitate the very thing it seeks to assess, i.e, blame leading violence. Look forward old chap.

  • Tacapall

    Yes of course your right Serg brushing the truth under the carpet and telling victims and their families to fk off there will be no justice or investigations into the truth surrounding their murders because people like you think their murders are unimportant and well just a tad expensive to carry out in your opinion. Hopefully that same experience wont ever happen in your life.

  • BronzeEchoTwoFive

    Perhaps those retired from the ‘security forces’ don’t feel compelled to revisit the past and are not bothered to join with other “combatants” in ‘justifying’ their ‘war’.

    I might just be that they look around and get the impression that for those interested in endlessly replaying the ‘conflict’ have already made up their minds as to what the ‘truth’ of the past actually was and pretty much recognise that those ‘narratives’ are fixed.

    Perhaps they can live with whatever regrets they might have and console themselves with thinking that in general, given the circumstances, they did ok.

    Perhaps too they have long since buried their dead and understand that they’re not coming back and so focus on the future. Finally they perhaps don’t give a toss about their ‘place’ in history and care not a jot about what their enemies of the past and their fellow travellers think about them today.

    Summed up as: been there, done that, and got the flak jacket.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I hope so too Tac. Not sure where I’ve told anyone to F off or where I think matters are unimportant. You just want a Blame Commission to further your narrow minded narrative. I’m not sure you give a stuff about the families of the victims. You’re just the flip side of the DUP bigots who want to apportion blame/re-write history along their prejudices. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for….pandora’s box should stay closed. God knows we need to move on…for the benefit of everyone.

  • Tacapall

    Serg walk in my shoes before you judge and the blame game remark is no different than accusing anyone who has an opinion other than the preferred narrative on whats happening in Palestine of anti semitism, its a form of censorship, personally I wouldn’t give two hoots how much it costs financially to unearth the truth nor who does it, the innocent deserve more respect than those who want to erase their actions in the past conflict. You never actually used the words fk off in regards to victims but anyone who can casually tell others to forget about the hurt they suffered because in your eyes we need to start again as per today well thats just not going to happen, the past did happen and wrongs must be righted either you learn from mistakes or you dont your way leads to more of the same.