Politicians feel threatened by the prospect of a civic voice, argues Robin Eames

Lord Eames, Former Anglican Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh

Politicians in Northern Ireland feel threatened by the concept of a strong civic society, but we should pursue the ambition of creating a ‘People’s Assembly’, argues Lord Robin Eames, the former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.  Robin was interviewed in the latest Forward Together podcast.

“We’re at a very delicate stage where our society is beginning to learn that the party politic regime doesn’t necessarily reflect their deepest concerns,” he says.  “I’m talking about health and education and social issues.  What I think is appearing in Northern Ireland is a gulf between the way in which elected politicians are trying to represent views in which they’re not really in touch with the vast majority of society.

“And I think this means that they’re falling back all the time on party political issues. And I think that the Brexit pressure is bringing this to the surface. The old traditional views where unionist or republican parties were able to state fairly clearly their position – that is not necessarily [now] the position of their constituents. And then added to that, there are the people in normal ordinary everyday society who are turning their backs on the party political input and beginning to say – you’re playing your own games, but you’re not either representing us or reflecting what really concerns us at the ground level.”

Robin suggests: “I think we need to do a lot more research into the ‘People’s Assembly’ concept. I think we need to do a lot more on how the media reflects what people on the ground are saying and I think people to a large extent – the people that talk to me, the people that I am in touch with – feel a tremendous degree of frustration at the lack of representation and the lack of  understanding of the media of what really concerns them in everyday life.”

Consideration of a ‘People’s Assembly’ is “only at an early stage”, says Robin.  “It is very similar” to the concept of the citizens’ assemblies in the Republic that have been used to address difficult topics there.  “It is to try to get a voice that is honest, open and in touch with reality.  The structure for that is probably more important even than those who take part in it.”  The main parties in Northern Ireland may seem uncomfortable about any such structure.  “But you see that’s really an indication of feeling threatened.”

When asked about how we create a more shared and integrated society, Robin responds, drawing on his experience as co-chair of Eames-Bradley (the Consultative Group on the Past), “Well we tried to bite the bullet on issues like who was a victim. Do you say that we were all victims?  Those of us who lived through and were involved in the years of the Troubles, we were all victims of a mass of disintegration of society. Is that the way to approach it? Victims are people who suffer, irrespective of the label, irrespective of who they were, or what they did. They suffered because of the enormity of what the Troubles did. Or do we sink back into the orange and green, in which we say that only an innocent person is a genuine victim?”

So does Robin believe that we can only make progress in building a future society, if we honestly and openly deal with the past?  “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he responds. “You must remember that I’m speaking from my personal experience of ministering to many hundreds of people who were suffering because of the Troubles…. Maturity demands that we take a wider view of what a victim was.  A victim is someone who suffered physically, mentally, spiritually, materially, because of the fact they lived in a certain place, they did a certain job, they had a certain political outlook and they were involved in a situation that was massively bigger than anything they were told they would have to face.”

What then of Eames-Bradley?  “The interesting thing is that it was a technicality over proposing a particular figure for compensation that was the watchword for those who tried to destroy the report.  Time and time again in all the years since, people have gone back to Eames-Bradley and even now as the government tries to look at a way of dealing with the past, people come to me and say what did that mean in the Eames-Bradley report? In other words it’s not gathering dust on a bookcase somewhere.  It’s actually still in people’s minds… There are still the seeds of Eames-Bradley. So if you were to ask me if you were doing it again, would you change it, I would probably change the question of mentioning a figure, yes.  But the rest of it should stand.”

He adds: “At the moment, I think Stormont House is progress. I think it owes a lot to Eames-Bradley. And I think that again indicates that a lot of what we said is still in people’s minds.”

Does that mean we need a process for the recovery of truth and do we need those involved to make apologies for us to make progress?  “In a sense you’re already rewriting history.  If you are a republican activist and you say I’m sorry for what I did – does that question your integrity and being involved in the first place? Does it mean for example a loyalist paramilitary – and I’m in touch with many of that ilk at the moment – does it mean that if a loyalist paramilitary comes out into the open and says look I want to apologize for what I did – what does it say about your involvement in the first place?”

Robin warns of the danger of re-writing history.  “People have said to me we need a completely independent history of what happened.  I say, yes of course we do.  But who is going to do that, what is independence and what is the reality of the evidence they will use?….  When I was making my contribution to Eames-Bradley I had a lot of conversations with Desmond Tutu in South Africa over the truth and reconciliation tribunal that was happening in Cape Town.  And the more I listened to him and the more we compared notes, the more I was convinced that the real element in looking at the past is honesty.

“Not honesty that would suit my party, my community. But honesty at a level where society has moved on to say, yes that happened, yes someone in my community caused that, but the truth is that has to be ticked-off as part of the history and you want a totally independent body to look at that in terms of – this is what happened and this is where we move on. That’s not to say you put a camouflage over it. It’s not to say you say oh that is irrelevant, it’s in the past.  It should face up to it, hurtful, dangerous though it is.  This is what happened. This is why we caused it, or we had a role in it.  Let’s put it on the table and let’s move on.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.