Review of Archbishop Eames’ Unfinished Search – Will Another Opportunity to Address the Past Slip through our Hands?

‘Despite attempts to revise or rewrite history, the complexities of the legacy of this period indicate, if nothing else, that to find a common ground for the future will be a more difficult task than bringing an end to violence. To win the peace in Northern Ireland is one thing. To make it last and to transform it into an accepted way of life is by far the greatest mountain to climb.’ — Archbishop Robin Eames, Unfinished Search, p. 136

Those are sobering words, perhaps even more so because they come from a man who has devoted a significant part of his life to listening to victims, considering their pain and weighing up options for how Northern Ireland might deal with its past.

The words come from Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames and are rooted in his experience as part of the Consultative Group on the Past, which produced what has since become known as the Eames-Bradley Report (2009). Many of the options in the Government’s current Consultation Paper on ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ can be traced to the Eames-Bradley Report.

The words can be found in a book by Eames, Unfinished Search, published last year by Columba. The book is partly biographical and thus of historical interest because of Eames’ key role in Northern Ireland’s peace process. There is much to be learned in early chapters when he explains his rationale for meeting loyalist paramilitaries at a time when to do so was fraught with risk; and when he describes witnessing the surrender and destruction of arms held by the Ulster Defence Association. We also gain some insights into his dealings with Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair.

Beyond that, the book shows how one of the most significant aspects of Eames’ ministry has been simply listening to people, especially victims. During the Troubles he met and comforted the bereaved. His work on the Consultative Group on the Past also led to numerous encounters with victims.

Unfinished Search draws on this experience to make the important point that no two victims experience their bereavement or injuries in exactly the same way. Victims respond differently and they want different things from the state, from society, from the churches, from their families. Some seem instantly ready to forgive, others come to forgiveness slowly and painfully, others must make a decision to forgive every single day, some wait for perpetrators to repent before they will consider forgiveness, and some may never forgive.

Recognizing this complexity is difficult enough; actually dealing with it in a way that brings some measure of healing or comfort (dare we say justice?) to the greatest number of victims is even more challenging. Eames seems to recognize that justice is an unachievable holy grail, because people hold such opposing views of what  justice would look like.

Eames also reflects on why the Eames-Bradley Report was so roundly rejected. The most immediate, and memorable, reason why Eames-Bradley was rejected was the reaction to the recommendation that all victims should receive a £12k compensation payment. But Eames believes the more substantial reason is that Northern Ireland society simply wasn’t ready to face up to the past in 2009. Back then, memories were still too painful, still too raw. Inevitably, that raises the question: Nearly a decade later, is Northern Ireland ready now? Eames is unequivocal on this (p. 165):

In days when victims continue their search for answers, when leaks continue to appear in the media, court or coroners’ inquiries, when the old battles continue to be fought in words and peace walls continue to cast shadows on streets and in hearts and minds – when the first real steps towards a truly shared society begin to appear – surely this is the time. Until we do reconciliation will remain a vision whose time has not yet come.

By drawing our attention to the way the past continues to haunt the present, Unfinished Search’s most significant contribution is its advocacy for swift and timely action to address the legacy of the past.

For me, this makes the ongoing consultation process on ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ even more urgent. The Eames-Bradley process, and other legacy debates and processes that followed it, were wide-ranging. One might even say they were comprehensive in their efforts to canvass and summarize public opinion on what to do about the past. In short, we pretty much know what we should do to achieve some sort of a ‘common good’ in the form of healing for a range of victims.

While I hope that civic society engages with the current process, I do not expect it to throw up anything new. But what it might tell us is if more people feel ready to face up to the truths that – while they will never set us completely free – could make life more bearable for the wounded who continue to live among us.

When describing his work on the Consultative Group on the Past, Eames tells a story about its first encounter with the then-First Minister, Rev Ian Paisley. Given the past expression of his political views, it might have been expected that Paisley would take a hard line on how to deal with the past. But Eames found him surprisingly sympathetic (p. 153):

Dr Paisley had no doubt on our basic conclusion: [He said] “There was no difference between the tears of any mother in the Troubles.” Such words summed up the tragedy of the past, yet they indicated to us a compassionate view of the difficulties we faced.

Significant portions of the book are geared towards a church-going audience. Eames’ main message for them is that Christians must commit themselves to anti-sectarianism. For him, it is not enough to be non-sectarian; the churches must not turn in on themselves and ignore Christians of other denominations. Rather, if churches are to contribute to reconciliation at all they must do so with a combined public witness that transcends and transforms historic divisions. (Unfortunately, one must look hard to find current examples of such Christian witness.)

Ultimately, Unfinished Search reminded me that many people in Northern Ireland have borne their own grief so that the ‘greater good’ of the end of violence could be achieved. The current consultation on ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ is just the latest in a long line of attempts that has the potential to deal humanely with their sacrifice and forbearance. Will we let this opportunity slip through our hands?