Lord Bew on the Prospects for Dealing with the Past

Yesterday’s House of Lords debate on the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks raised questions about the responsibility of the British and Irish governments, as well as the Northern Ireland parties, in moving forward on addressing the legacy of the past.

Lord Bew’s remarks on the unlikeliness of ‘a shared process of recovery from the past’ were particularly sobering for those who think progress in many aspects of Northern Irish life will remain stalled until such a process takes place.

He succinctly summarised mutually exclusive ‘unionist’ and ‘republican’ views on the past and lamented that those who hold these views do not wish to hear challenges from different perspectives.

For me, Bew’s observations underline why an overarching process on the past is so important.

Without such a process, each ‘community’ can construct its own story of the past, unhindered by alternative narratives and perspectives.

I don’t think that we can ever come to agreement and construct an overarching ‘history’ of the Troubles. But being exposed to competing perspectives on the past can at least raise awareness that there’s not just one side to the story.

While that might not produce agreement, in some cases it can promote understanding and even empathy.

Here’s what Bew had to say:

… I regret to say this because I feel the needs of the victims so strongly and it is such a disappointing thing to say, particularly for those young scholars who want to participate in this process—increasingly to the view that the idea of a shared process of recovery from the past is not a very likely project. It was one I used to strongly and until recently believe in. I have not given up on it completely but I am increasingly sceptical.

The unionist community basically believes that the state is responsible for only 10% of deaths, loyalist paramilitaries for 30% and republicans for 60%. They therefore believe that any narrative must reflect the fact that the lion’s share of the killing was carried out by republicans. It is quite straightforward: that is their view of the matter and that is what they want to hear.

The republican community, on the other hand, with the support of a large cast of journalists, clerics and NGOs, focuses on broader explanatory factors which emphasise long-term structural factors, discrimination, sectarianism, institutional culpability and collusion. This can sometimes be linked to a broader discourse of human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation.

These are two world views you can accept or quote. They are fundamentally opposed. It is hard to see how you can have a shared process when you acknowledge this fact.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com