Forgive for the sake of the future?

Duncan MORROW lecture, "Forgive for the sake of the future?", Downshire Civic Centre, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

Duncan MORROW lecture, “Forgive for the sake of the future?”, Downshire Civic Centre, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

Forgive for the sake of the future?
A lecture by Duncan Morrow
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
29 September 2015

As part of the Community Relations Week programme, a former Chief Executive of the Community Relations Council, Dr Duncan Morrow, gave a lecture that explored how unresolved trauma affects the legacy for future generations.

Sitting in the same chairs as the elected representatives occupy in the chamber at Down District Council, Dr Morrow told the audience that he believed that reconciliation is not an event, but a process.

“What is the biggest obstacle to the future? The past,” he answered.

Indeed, he added, we keep pushing the issue of the past down the road.

In regards to the peace process, the easy part was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, according to Dr Morrow, because it was a shared result between the British and Irish Governments (and endorsed by popular referendum).

The hard part is agreeing how to deal with the past.

He made the case that you have to do so by rehumanising the legacy of dehumanising.

Here, we need to re-see and re-hear each other, not only to tell our stories, but also listen to those of others. You may not like what you hear, but remember that they may not like what you say to them. And that there is a crucial difference between truth-telling and truth-adjusting, which will require joining up all of our stories.

One alternative, Dr Morrow mooted, was to ‘draw a line’ under the past, which is very tempting and practical. But if we did this, he argued, all of our stories and rituals remain intact, unchanged; the morality of our actions are not questioned; our behaviour will not change.

But what about justice?

Dr Morrow said that if you do use the familiar model of abused versus abuser, then you will not get a resolution or peace. He used the example of a child abuser, and how it would be preposterous to suggest that the abused child had any culpability in the actions of the abuser.

The alternative, he suggested, was to qualify the model by saying that we were both abused and abusers.

Significantly, Dr Morrow said that justice needs to be in front of us (i.e. our vision for a just society), because you can’t apply justice to make everything right retrospectively.

To put this another way, we could have stories where everyone is telling the truth, yet everyone feels injustice.

So how could we put justice in front of us?

Can our politicians tell other stories? asked Dr Morrow. Can we define justice and rehumanise? Can we endure the discomfort of telling and listening to our stories?

And what of forgiveness?

Dr Morrow suggested acknowledging injustice, for the sake of a new day, while recognising what needs to change (including collective responsibility taking for the past). Ask and answer the question, what would restoration mean?

We will need to show mercy.

“We will need to move into the future with those who have done us wrong,” concluded Dr Morrow.

Allan Leonard is a board member of the Community Relations Council.


  • Turgon

    “we were both abused and abusers”

    Quite simply that is untrue. The vast majority of people here were neither terrorists nor supporters of terrorism nor indeed victims. Most people got on with their lives in a blameless fashion. Indeed during the Troubles we often spoke of the vast majority who, whatever their politics or views, totally opposed violence.

    This narrative that we are all guilty is actually a lying calumny against the people of Northern Ireland. It is propagated by those with a specific political agenda. They are welcome to argue for their agenda but by the bizarre perversion of claiming some sort of moral superiority by embracing non existent guilt they are on a perverse and in actual fact immoral high horse.

    This position has been advanced by Eames Bradley and assorted others and has been rejected each and every time. It again needs to be rejected. If on the other hand Dr. Morrow wants to confess to some “abuse” he committed that is fair enough but that is for him. Dr. Morrow and the like should be asked each and every time they raise this nonsense what abuses they committed and what specific abuses they accuse each of us of.

  • Dan

    ‘He made the case that you have to do so by rehumanising the legacy of dehumanising…’

    That’ll crack it, right enough.

    Anyone ever totalled up the number of bluffers and wafflers there are on the NI peace process lecture circuit?

  • Zeno

    This sort of nonsense creates a model for more terror groups to follow. It legitimises the murders,bombings, kidnapping and torture. The alternative is to never stop trying to bring justice to the perpetrators the same way the Jewish do with the Nazis.

  • Sharpie

    Except we are because the vast majority of us support that narrative, ostensibly by supporting those who live this view in their words and actions, and by not challenging the status quo in any meaningful sense. We are complicit by our refusal / inability to act differently. There is no point right now in hearing confessions of the messenger in public – but at some stage it will be necessary and if you aren’t ready to say yours, you at least have to be ready to really listen to someone else’s. Are you ready for that?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Most Unionists supported either the DUP (Ulster Resistance, Third Force, ‘Colour of the Wallpaper’, Clontibret etc and can anyone put a number on
    how many gullible fools ‘Dr’ Paisley sent to the waiting arms of the UVF, UDA etc etc?) or the UUP whose misrule of Northern Ireland over decades laid a solid foundation for years of murder and destruction. And of course we had the UDR who were riddled with loyalist sympathisers and ‘activists’ and who were fully supported by Unionism.

    On the other side thousands of nationalists gave varying levels of support to the Provos, INLA etc from grudging admiration for certain actions to
    snippets of information all the way to outright membership. IRA members were elected as MPs in your constituency at the height of the troubles.

    Some were infinitely more guilty than others but all the various acts of violence didn’t exist in a vacuum. Let’s not kid ourselves here.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks Alan – I must read the whole piece.

    What you report refreshes thinking on a serious problem we have grappled with for so long we tend to go round in circles hence newish concepts can help advance thinking on how to deal with the past in a way that does not inhibit progress.

    For example even peace building discourse here doesn’t often refer to value for mercy. The idea of ‘restoring a vision of a just society’ is also on the button
    I am also taken with the notion of “rehumanisimg the legacy of dehumanising” as it draws attention to the impact of demonisation.
    Even trying to untangle what it means might yield ideas about practical ways for relating to each other.

    Let’s face it, our present approach for dealing with the legacy of the troubles isn’t working.

  • Thomas Barber

    “The alternative is to never stop trying to bring justice to the perpetrators the same way the Jewish do with the Nazis”

    Indeed thats why everyone should be opposed to the use of closed courts, the use of redaction, national security, cover up, delaying tactics and whatever medly of terms used by the British government to cover up the roles RUC Special branch, British intelligence and the roles of state agents in hundreds if not thousands of murders here in this part of Ireland.

  • Janos Bingham

    Well of course it was ‘all the Brits’ fault’. Themuns were responsible for everything from the flood to global warming.

    The nationalists simply stood idly by. No blood on their hands guv. Honest injuns.

    Yet why did no one mention this during the “war”? All those Shinner spokespeople bringing us the daily ‘war news’. Did they not notice that “thousands” we’re being killed by the Brits? Why did they not say it was ‘enemy agents’ blowing things up and shooting people and that their own volunteers were only busy doing macrame?

    Were they part of this massive conspiracy too?

    Are the Brits under every bed?

    Has ‘Republican News’ always been printed in Whitehall?

  • chrisjones2

    I fear that had that been true the number of dead would have been even higher. The reason that we didn’t end up in civil war was that most people on both sides didn’t support any of it and your attempt to suggest otherwise is mere sophistry

  • chrisjones2

    “The alternative, he suggested, was to qualify the model by saying that we were both abused and abusers.”

    I agree with Turgon. The issue is that the grief is felt at the micro level of individuals and families. Suggesting that those in La Mon or McGurks bar or picked off the streets on shovels on Bloody Friday were some how responsible for their fates is, frankly, shameful nonsense

    And how can there be forgiveness in the face of open lies of the “I was never in the IRA” type?

  • chrisjones2

    Now now…we cannot afford to lose all those jobs

  • chrisjones2

    “Has ‘Republican News’ always been printed in Whitehall?”

    no … was always printed in Ireland …just form time to time important bits of it were written in London when SF needed another bit of ‘guidance’

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I don’t usually buy into this sort of postulating cr*p but when you see the comments made in response. “It was all the fault of the Provi’s” – Chris et al; “oh no it wasn’t, it was all the fault of the Brits, unionists etc” – Tochias et al, then maybe there is something in it. I’m more of the “draw a line under it” kind of person. However one absolute from the above is the last sentence “we will need to move into the future with those who have done us wrong”. Something unionism needs to be reminded of.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Isn’t it a lot less difficult than we think? We already have an agreed body of rules for all this – I studied it (briefly and not very well) – it’s the criminal law. Instead of angsting over how to apportion blame, and making sweeping generalisations in which innocent people are blamed for their own suffering at the hands of wrong-doers, why not just use the criminal law, along with the best evidence we have, as the basis for apportioning blame and working out the rights and wrongs of the Troubles.

    The Sutton Index of Deaths and other studies have managed to establish organisational level responsibility for the vast majority of Troubles killings. The organisations themselves don’t dispute many of those findings. They are all committed to peace and reconciliation so they won’t object to sitting down and confirming which killings were theirs, the security forces can do likewise, with a team of historians and lawyers. We can then publish the results to everyone in Northern Ireland, through every letterbox – here’s who killed whom, here’s who was responsible for this bomb – as a close-to-definitive record of what happened.

    Then everyone can declare to everyone else that every murder was wrong, that murder is murder and no one can justify it. That some killings in self-defence, while terrible for those killed, were legally justified (and this would apply to IRA people using minimum force to kill a Loyalist attacker, if that ever happened) and have to be accepted. That the security force anti-terror operations involved a few members who went rogue, who are equally guilty of murder; but that anti-terror operations also had to involve running informer in terror cells and knowing about some of their activities without preventing them, that that is unavoidable in infiltrating terror cells. Then we can move on.

    No one need do anything more than own up to what they actually did (and this could be at an organisation level not an individual level). No one is going to get blamed for stuff they didn’t do. The criminal law will dictate whether what they did is a crime and if so at what level of seriousness. Tables could then be produced showing in aggregated terms what each organisation involved in the Troubles did. That would include where possible the good stuff too (sorry terrorists, the good stuff is going to be nearly all security force actions).

    If some are unhappy with the actual criminal law here in NI, we can agree to use another country’s as the standard, most are broadly similar around the world.

    The Troubles ultimately refers to a collection of individual violent incidents. So we could do worse than just tackle the detail of what those incidents were. What we absolutely have to avoid is the terrorists calling the tune and trying to drag everyone else down to their level.

    Some nationalists may assert that the UUP is ‘responsible’ for the Troubles by being a crap government for several decades. Equally we can look at irridentism within Irish nationalism over decades. If you think the UUP were a crap government, I’ll probably agree – but let’s find them guilty of being a crap government. Or let’s find nationalism guilty of irridentism. But let’s get away from stretching guilt for one thing onto a supposed guilt for other things well beyond the chain of causation. In particular, let’s get some sense back here and remember the Troubles were not inevitable, they were a series of deliberate acts by individuals and groups. Let’s blame the people who did them, not people who are supposed to have “provoked” the murders or bombings. We could do worse than follow the way the law has developed here: provocation in law is a very narrow thing. Loss of control only mitigates murder down to manslaughter if an ordinary person with ordinary self control would have reacted as the accused did. We know ordinary people did not react as the terrorists did to the supposed ‘provocation’ they received. Their suggestion that the “British occupation” forced them to do it, or revenge for Bloody Friday or whatever, should be treated as irrelevant for these purposes.

    As Morrow I think acknowledges, it is a nonsense to treat the abuser’s reasons for abusing as some kind of excuse for their abuse, that makes their actions less bad. Some of these reasons may invite sympathy – like a personal loss, a history of being abused themselves – but the circle of passing on abuse must be broken and it is broken in the process I suggest. The abusers must bear the guilt, not their victims or the wider public, no matter how “short-skirted”.

  • chrisjones2

    Yes…provided they too are ready for the response ….for example if they were driving an excavator with large bomb in it and were challenged by the SAS or Police and shot in a gun battle , well frankly I am sorry for your loss as a family and for the grief you feel, but that was their own choice and misadventure and they were killed while trying to kill others.

  • chrisjones2

    “It was all the fault of the Provi’s” – Chris et al

    Where did I say that? Show me anywhere that I said that?

    You are viewing comments as you seem top WANT them to rather than as they are actually written

  • Thomas Barber

    If you could just deal with the facts of what I said rather than put your own spin on what you think I meant and if you dont agree with what the former Police Ombudsman Naula O Loan and Victims commissioner Dennis Bradley said about the scale and extent of collusion and the numbers of state agents involved in hundreds if not thousands of murders then feel free to prove them wrong rather than ask me stupid questions about republican news being printed in Whitehall. I dont give a fiddlers f …. about Sinn Fein or indeed anyone who would take an innocent life, I want to see them “ALL” brought to justice whether they be republican, loyalist, RUC, British army and whoever else is involved in covering up and allowing the guilty parties to evade justice.

  • Tochais Siorai

    So tell me, Chris, which part of what I said is ‘mere sophistry’?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Maybe try going beyond the first para Sergio and I mightn’t be exactly what you think I am……

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Few are Tochais. I was using yerself and the fair Chris to illustrate a point. Don’t mean to casting aspersions and your balanced views….

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “The alternative, he suggested, was to qualify the model by saying that we were both abused and abusers.”

    Well, maybe not exactly but something similar, like a scale for honestly examining one’s actions over the years and determining if one contributed to THE MACHINE of Northern Ireland’s grisly merry-go-round.

    At the top of the scale would be the obvious candidates; the trigger-pullers, bomb makers and planters.

    Followed closely (if not equally) by those who helped to create the conditions that helped them arrive at their murderous destination; the rabble-rousers, manipulators, those who wanted to keep a person ‘in their place’, those who created fear and counter-fear.

    Then we have those who prop up the paranoia and neurosis; the Willie Frazers, the Tim Pat Coogans, the MOPErs, the abusers of history and hijackers of narratives, those who infect others (foreigners and locals alike) with their poison.

    Further down the scale would be the occasional contributors, those who maybe become active and vocal during silly season;
    Those who become overly excited at band parades and care not for the feelings of their neighbours, those who determine that the commemorations and memorials of certain life-takers should be commemorated rather than consider the hurt that this might cause to others and the psychological imprint that it leaves.

    No one chastised me when I and others came out with sectarian drivel at school and we then helped to prop-up the impression that such chat was OK, so the younger fellas who came to school after us entered into this culture that we contributed to.

    We were influenced by older people in and out of school, so they did their part in keeping the culture going.

    Further still and we find the more benign contributors to THE MACHINE, those who passively agree that flags should be flown over the place, or parades continue without guidelines or those who don’t realise when they’re politicising things like sport or the Irish language, etc.

    And then we have those who would like to say something about all of the above, but don’t and as such help to create an illusion of acceptability for all the things that go on in NI that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

    For most of us keeping this machine well oiled with our voluntary and involuntary contributions has very little in the way of obvious consequences but all these contributions (and other much more severe ones, obviously, pedants) led some to the point of no return.

    (And let us not forget the whatabouterists, those who will ignore the key points of a discussion because someone/thing that they don’t like isn’t mentioned in the spiel and takes this as uncontested evidence that the other person is biased and consequently all points are moot. Such people prevent topics from reaching closure)

  • Zeno

    “…. British intelligence and the roles of state agents in hundreds if not thousands of murders here in this part of Ireland.”

    It can’t be thousands. The IRA and other republicans murdered over 1800 people.

  • Gingray

    Do you mean the Israelis or the Jewish religion?

    Given that many of the Nazis ended up working for Britain and the USA without facing prosecution it’s not a model that worked.

    South Africa and Rwanda provided models that gave part of a solution but the crimes here merit punishment.

    That shouldn’t be just limited to the terrorists, the state in their actions and management of agents need to be investigated.

  • Thomas Barber

    “It can’t be thousands. The IRA and other republicans murdered over 1800 people”

    Take for example British agent Freddie Scappaticci who was allowed to murder up to 60 people in the name of the IRA, are you going to suggest the British government had no moral obligation to save those lives therefore played no part in the murder process.

    “Ms May told the BBC those supplying guns were “as guilty” as those using them as the impact was just as deadly. The maximum sentence for the offense, which will apply in England, Wales and Scotland, will be life imprisonment”

    There’s an abundance of evidence in the public domain proving both RUC special branch and British intelligence supplied many of the weapons used in numerous murders claimed by others yet they are not linked as being a joint enterprise.

    The Sutton index and Cain are obviously outdated and flawed methods to apportion blame on who carried out what murders.

  • Gingray

    You keep forgetting to include loyalists – they are not part of the state, and the murder of a Catholic is just important.

    The ira are responsible for the greatest share of blame, but all parties committed crimes, and if it’s justice you are after perhaps remembering that it’s not just republicans would be a place to start.

    Outside of the murders, of major concern must the role the competing intelligence services played – it’s becoming apparent that they had lots of agents providing various bits of information. Did the conflict go on longer because of their actions? Who knows – but surely we deserve to know what murder was committed by those paid for by our taxes, as we need to know about who did what vile actions in all the terrorist organisations, including your loyalist chums you forgot about.

    Can’t see it happening tho – the Brits have too many secrets and the terrorists too much to lose to let the truth be uncovered.

  • Zeno

    “are you going to suggest the British government had no moral obligation to save those lives therefore played no part in the murder process.”

    No off course not. But he was a member of the IRA and he did murder people on their behalf. We don’t know how many he murdered when he wasn’t a British agent either.
    The Irish government supplied guns to the IRA, Americans supplied guns as did Gadifi. If the brits are to blame so is everyone who supplied them. This could turn out the IRA didn’t murder anyone since all guns are supplied by someone.

  • Thomas Barber

    “But he was a member of the IRA and he did murder people on their behalf”

    On their behalf ! He was a British agent who worked in the IRA’s internal security department on behalf of the British government a department that vetted all IRA volunteers, debriefed all arrested volunteers also including unearthing informers, investigating compromised or operations that resulted in arrests.

    Everybody in the world knows about who supplied arms to the IRA and what part they played in the total number of murders that occurred during the conflict, thats not refuted by anyone, but its the smug denials by unionism and the British government of their links to loyalism and their bare faced hypocrisy to face up to the reality of the wide scale collusion in an almost daily increasing number of murders that occurred during the conflict that offends most Catholics coupled with the unionist sense of being the only victims that needs to be brought out into the open.

  • Zeno

    Surely if he was not an agent and not murdering people then the IRA would have had someone else to do it. I really don’t think you can blame his murders completely on the Brits. It was the IRA who “employed” him.
    I’m pretty sure the British Government has admitted that collusion did happen. I agree that some unionists seem to believe they were the only ones who suffered. Many innocent Catholics lost their lives including friends of mine who were murdered by loyalist paramilitaries and the IRA.

  • chrisjones2

    “Everybody in the world knows about who supplied arms to the IRA and what part they played in the total number of murders that occurred during the conflict, thats not refuted by anyone,”

    When did the Irish Government admit their role? And Haughey’s?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t think victims forgiving perpetrators are going to deal with the much bigger issue of communities villainizing one another through straw-man arguments when the fiscal problems are escalating. That’s not hate, that’s just prejudice and quite often the tit-for-tat intransigence on both sides simply gives that prejudice a grounding in truth.Lots of good relationships work despite arguing, it’s the absence of will to do business that becomes the problem.

    As far as I’m concerned a victim’s choice to forgive or not to forgive is no one else’s to make. Victims are the main pillars of the peace process, and the effect of the grace of victims on so many people here is only reason our society hasn’t fallen back to the brink of anarchy. Not caring about victims, means not caring about consequences, which means not caring about violence.

  • Greenflag 2

    “Let’s face it, our present approach for dealing with the legacy of the troubles isn’t working:”

    True and neither will the next approach . Mr Morrow means well and Turgon tells half the truth . When everybody is guilty nobody is guilty .

    The State i.e Northern Ireland is the problem . Get rid of it and the locals will have some chance of eventually unlocking the sectarian mindsets and backward prejudices that keep them in perpetual navel gazing . Trying to make it (NI) work like a normal democracy is sprayng water into the wind . The numbers won’t let it work . Most of the local politicians don’t have the will or capacity to look beyond tribal thinking – those who do find themselves marginalised .

    The Chuckie brothers provided a brief window of opportunity but eventually a political solution based on personalities will not stand the test of time .

    And yes it could have been a whole lot worse . The Balkans were and the Middle East is .

    The British Government will be forced to bring back Direct Rule until such time as they can wash their hands of the mess that political Unionism created .

    The people of Northern Ireland have a future .The State doesn’t . Time up just about .