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.”

  • Sean Danaher

    “You’re a smart guy…” well possibly but the smartness has to do with being able to do mathematics at a very high level rather than having a legal brain. There is a line in James Cavell’s Shogun along the lines “An insurrection is only ever legitimate if it succeeds.” Certainly NI is legitimate on those terms.

    I’m not sure if I’m a Nationalist in Northern terms. I certainly believe violence to be counter productive. It’s a bizarre situation when SF is the greatest driver towards the Union as they have an ability to repulse moderate Unionists. On the opposite side the DUP are probably the greatest driver towards a United Ireland. As Fintan O’Toole argued earlier this year “In the first instance, the DUP has achieved more progress towards a united Ireland than any Irish political party, North or South, since partition in 1921”. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-dup-has-done-the-most-for-a-united-ireland-1.2956656

    I like many in the South have no territorial ambitions whatsoever towards Northern Ireland and am resigned to the GFA. Before Brexit I thought the prospect of a UI was remote; possibly in 25 years but maybe not even then as a majority in NI would never vote for it. Now I’m not so sure. Brexit could be disastrous for the NI economy. It seems also that something like 90% of pro-Brexit Tories would sacrifice the Union (and not just with NI, Scotland also) if it stopped them getting the hard Brexit they want for England. At present the DUP have apparent veto but never underestimate the raw cunning of the Tories.

    Comments I have had from Southerners recently are: “They (the DUP) and SF deserve each other and it is far better for all other
    inhabitants on these islands if they can be quarantined where they are”.
    and “Ireland will become as ungovernable as Belgium” or the even starker “We don’t want them”

    You seem to be contemplating repartition recently. A few months ago you seemed very confident that as many of the Catholic children were Eastern European they would support the Union. I presume you have not changed your mind and are just exploring possibilities?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The younger generation here has already outgrown the constraints of partition with that generations access to the vital growth of an Ireland many of them see as a natural extension of their lives now. While this is threatened by the break down of openness in the threat of a possible hard exit from the EU, there is still some hope in a Dalriada Document solution which avoids the older generations polarisation being enforced on the lives of the young and on the commonality which is developing across the island.

    In that context the general indifference of the current administration to anything but their own political rightist Neo-Con interests may hopefully ensure that the proposals to keep our community open to Europe with a sea border is part of the inevitable compromise solution.

  • NotNowJohnny

    The possibility is zero. It is not literally possible to do it. It is not legally possible. It is not politically possible. It is not practically possible. And no serious person has suggested it. The only people who are suggesting it are those who have absolutely no idea how it could come about, where the new border would be drawn or how the huge legal, political and practical obstacles to it could be overcome. As a suggestion it is right up there with Ireland rejoining the UK, Yorkshire declaring independence and the Chinese handing Hong Kong back.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It would be more accurate to say that the six counties represented the maximum area unionists thought could be retained in the UK that would ensure a unionist majority big enough to ensure that power was permanently in the hands of unionists. It is worth noting that your claim that “it is the wishes of the people living in the territory affected that gives Northern Ireland its legitimacy” renders the exclusion of Fermanagh and Tyrone from the Irish Free State by unionists an illegitimate act and therefore calls into question the legitimacy of the inclusion of these two counties in Northern Ireland.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    why go by county though? If interested in a more accurate border it should have gone doen to a lower level.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    but it has more to be said for it than a united Ireland 🙂

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No I’m not sure about repartition I was just putting it out there. Politically it suits neither block and neither government at the moment so it won’t happen. But the border made in 1921 was arbitrary, based on historic counties and not demographics on the ground and it was always worth looking at adjusting it in my book. I see no value in having South Armagh for example inside the UK.

    On the overseas Catholic numbers in the last Census, I wasn’t saying they were all unionists, rather they seem to split down the middle – my point was they seem from other attitudes more like the new centre (just not part of the old ethnic block politics) than anything else. So people lumping them in as ‘Catholics’ as if they were to be treated just like Irish Catholics in this crude headcount people do, is misleading. You might think it’s pointless getting into demographic stats and I left them alone for a long time. But I’ve started looking and challenging now because the misleading narratives around them have actually, I’ve come to think, had a big effect on our politics and quality of local democracy. I think this false belief in imminent victory through birth rate has party fuelled SF’s decision to effectively boycott devolved government in the meantime. And it causes unionist panic and heel-digging because too many of them believe the headlines and become fatalistic and dark about some inevitable Armageddon. It is dangerous stuff and the thing is, it’s not actually borne out by the figures when you look at them.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’ve been examining the border issue in some depth as a continuum on work on the Irish Constitutional Conference of 1917/18. I could unpack it for pages , but in a nutshell, anything smaller than the six counties was considered as too weak to do other than build an administrative defecit. Of course that economic melt down began to occur anyway after 1938, which I why I believe Craigavon was talking about reunification in 1937. The choice of pressing for a Catholic one third minority was essentially an economic choice. As you suggest, the problem had a moral and security dimension, and the failure to address these issues endured a serious flaw which has weakened the integrity of the statelet across its existence. It was the arguement about the sheer size of the minority which influenced Wilson and Callaghan to press after 1964 for that total franchise reform which worried Paisley and Bunting. As you are aware, I had family links to Bunting and heard back that while they were confident they could “ put down” the CSJ and its successors, they regarded the “treachery” of Westminster as the real problem.

    We could debate endlessly the self-determination issue which I critique on detailed grounds of propaganda manipulation rather too complex to sketch out on Slugger (believe it or not I do try and be brief) but the clincher in the scale of land demanded appears to have been the economic issue, although the integrity of the old county boundaries was employed as a more easily understood argument. Population patterns hardly got a look in.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    do you think an area with a bigger nationalist minority in it would have been better? What’s the logic to that? The aim with drawing borders surely is to minimise national minorities on either side, so as few people as possible have to live in the ‘wrong’ state for them.

  • Sean Danaher

    I think we can agree on a few things; the boundary commission missed an opportunity in 1925 and the county boundaries were and still are not fit for purpose.

    I think relying on demographics is the last refuge of the incompetent and both communities need to do more to reach out to the other side. The sad fact of the matter is that NI seems to have become more entrenched along sectarian divides and not less; the DUP and SF are parties I could never ever vote for. The change in demographics will be a good thing if it makes both communities genuinely engage in winning the hearts and minds of the centre. Demographics are very ugly is they are used simply to bludgeon the other side into submission.

    The narrative that there is an inevitable rising tide which will sweep the Union away is counter-productive. What is most badly needed is to make NI a prosperous well governed place. It is increasingly viewed from the outside in both Britain and the Republic as a liability rather than as asset.

    The worry is that neither side really wants NI to work. SF sees a dysfunctional NI as increasing the likelihood of a UI as demographics and disenchantment with the status quo will carry the day. The DUP hates the supposed demographic change and realises that under the GFA the South has to agree to take on NI. As in Milton “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” (But this may be over analysing the DUPs position).

    It might be best to set a date for a border poll in the far future say 2030 and for both sides to get on with making NI a success. As I’ve said before whereas I culturally admire Britain tremendously, the governance structures are such that whereas London and the Home Counties prosper, the rUK is falling further and further behind.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree with all of that! Except maybe that the DUP are messing up NI so it’s harder for the South to take over – I don’t think that’s how they think.

    They are digging their heels in out of fear of feeding the Republican beast. I think they need to play it a lot smarter. There’s much to be gained in conceding to SF where it wants something reasonable and a ceiling can be put on it, like the Irish language stuff. Narrow and narrow again SF’s openings to whinge, so that they are left with only marginal or unpopular things to bang on about. They will still bang on, because that’s what they’re all about, but they’ll be defused. The DUP have gifted them issues to exploit that resonate with mainstream, centrist people – bad politics on their part.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The rest of Europe in that era, or the Paris Conference at least, was dispatching geographers to the borderland areas of central and eastern Europe to map out the new borders for the new age. We could have done with a few of them. British Isles exceptionalism at work again?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    If you’re interested in that era, make sure you read the Niall Cunningham (of Durham University I think) article on the violence of 1920-22 –
    goes into real detail on the patterns http://dro.dur.ac.uk/15880/1/15880.pdf

    He’s also co-written a book called Troubled Geographies, which is a mine of great maps and information on the geography of the various Northern Ireland conflicts. Well worth a read, I recommend it to everyone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think you’re more attached to 1966 than Clive Tyldesley and John Motson combined …

  • NotNowJohnny

    What leads you to that conclusion?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Just in after a day away. And checked the piece out. I think I’ve encountered his work before. I’d agree the term “Pogroms” is needed but a certain amount of what he’s saying is distorted by the period being treated as one continuous event. There are three distinct phases, the expulsions and burnings of 1920, which is primarily a pogrom on Catholics at a moment when the northern IRA was virtually non existant (they had to import Cork assassins for the Swanzy killing). This was against a non violent IPP voting constitutionalist community, in Belfast, although there was as a Sinn Fein presence in Derry and in what would be the borders. This was followed by a year of tit for tat killings over 1921 as any IRA presence developed in response to the 1920 pogrom, and then a very bitter and intense conflict in the first six months of 1922 before the Belfast IRA headed south to participate in the Civil War with the Free State. The second year was heavily slanted still against the Catholic community, but in the third year was marked by major atrocity by the Specials and counter atrocity on a rather smaller scale by the IRA, to hassle for political positions in the wake of the 1921 Treaty conclusion. These three phases have distinctly different characters.

    But for a general picture of the troubles, with some telling geographic analysis, the article is an excellent introduction.

    I am researching the Protestant Unionist actions against protestant socialists at the moment. The simple Catholic/Protestant breakdown of deaths disguises just how many Protestant deaths were such parallel targeting. The work expulsions of 1920 accounted for about 1000 Protestants expelled from Harland and Wolff alone and a parAlell series of burning out of “ unreliable” Protestant families by Unionists. I have not seen this appearing in any other research, and some of the complexity of working with the confused primary source material is described in Dr Cunningham’s own article. I have found this also, but am perhaps helped by a familiarity from childhood with narratives of the period.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Would have been better for whom? I’m not sure I follow your logic here. By excluding Fermanagh and Tyrone from Northern Ireland the national minority in what became NI would have been more minimised. There would have been less nationalists in NI. You’re going to have to explain to me how by including Fermanagh and Tyrone with their nationalist majorities minimised the national minorities on either side or how it ensured as few people as possible had to live in the ‘wrong’ state. Help me out here.

  • NotNowJohnny

    An accurate border was not a priority for unionism back then. The priority for unionism was to take control of the maximum area possible that would ensure a sufficient unionist majority to minimise the risk of nationalists having control. Where unionists couldn’t prevent nationalists gaining control of local councils they subsequently changed the election rules and engaged in gerrymandering.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The UVF murders in 1966 have become the standard go-to for Republicans now, I notice, when confronted with Republican failure to take responsibility for the scale of their role in the Troubles. It’s a way of implying the whole Troubles consisted as much of unionist terrorism as of nationalist terrorism, something it suits Republicans for people to falsely believe.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Interesting perspective but you didn’t answer the question.

  • Shane

    This is incorrect. The number of soldiers killed by paramilitaries during operation banner totals 722. Another 719 died as a results of other causes including accidents, natural causes, assaults, coroner confirmed suicide or open verdicts and cause not known. (source: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/143521/response/357035/attach/html/3/20130129%20FOI%20Smyth%2002%2001%202013%20160507%20018%20U.doc.html)

    If you are comparing like with like, ie, number of Catholics murdered versus number of soldiers murdered, the numbers are 1525 versus 722 respectively.

    (source: http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/troubles/troubles_stats.html)

    Catholics are the largest group murdered in the troubles by a significant margin.

    We talk about false narratives, let’s get away from this one.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I said ‘security forces’, so that includes police, not just army. You have reduced the figure by omitting police.

    The 1500+ figure you quote for Catholic deaths – I have 1,508 from a print out of Sutton I did in 2001 (apologies may not be latest adjusted figures, can check online tomorrow) – that includes 53 members of the British security forces and 360 Republican terrorists. The Catholic civilian (non-terrorist and non-sec. forces) figure I have from Sutton is 1095, with security forces on 1,111.

    As I said, British people have the misfortune of outnumbering Irish Catholics overall in the Troubles victim totals.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    which one? Thought I did.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Walk me through it again step by step. You claimed that I was more attached to 1966 that John motson despite the fact that I am not mentioned 1966 once which was exactly the same number of times that you mentioned 1981 in the post of your which I responded to. So how did you come to the conclusion that I was more attached to 1966 than John motson?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    already responded to that one

  • NotNowJohnny

    You responded but you didn’t answer the question. I suspect your response was intended to avoid the question as to answer the question would have exposed the folly of your position. And not fur the first time either.