Enniskillen 30 Years On: Geraldine Smyth on Forgiveness and Mercy in the Public Square

An article by Joe Humphreys in today’s Irish Times marking the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb bears the headline: ‘Thirty years after Enniskillen: Can forgiveness transcend terrorist atrocities?’

Humphreys highlights the well-known words of forgiveness offered in the bomb’s immediate aftermath by Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died in the atrocity. He also recognizes the words of forgiveness offered this week by Stephen Ross, who was severely injured in the bomb.

Humphreys challenges us by asking: were these men right to forgive?

The article is based on a lengthy interview with Dr Geraldine Smyth, who offers some fresh perspectives on forgiveness that are worth reflecting on today:

Dr Geraldine Smyth, a Belfast-born expert on conflict transformation, says forgiveness can play a part in delivering peace and reconciliation but it was not “the lynchpin”.

“Forgiveness is a very loaded concept; it comes primarily I think from a religious background, and it suggests something more than human. It suggests something self-transcending. You cannot force it and you cannot manage it.”

As people experience trauma differently, it may be impossible for some people to forgive, she notes, and she rejects the idea of a moral duty to show mercy. “It doesn’t necessarily bring release in psychological or emotional terms but one thing is sure: Without forgiveness the world would be madder than it is. There needs to be some larger horizon than the natural instinct for revenge.”

Smyth is a trained psychotherapist and a Dominican nun, as well as an adjunct professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a board member of Healing Through Remembering, Northern Ireland.

She argues there is always a “relational context” to forgiveness, and this was evident in Wilson’s reaction to Enniskillen. In the intimate, final moments with his daughter he spoke her name three times and she voiced her love for him, and “that powerful bond of relational love, and expression of unconditional love, maybe released some kind of self-transcending power in himself to be more than the perpetrators – to break out of the cage of instinctive revenge that might otherwise have encased him like the rubble did.

“To me the relationship was the key. So I feel angry at people who say: ‘Aw, he was naive’, or ‘he hadn’t really processed his anger’ . . . Who are we to judge? People process their grief and bereavement in mightily different ways.”

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