Healing through remembering? The search for truth and justice.


© Brandon Hamber


Scope: Social Affairs Magazine, November 2001



The idea of a truth commission has been suggested before as a way for Northern Ireland to deal with its past and its present. But there are other approaches to dealing with the legacy of conflict and a new project just launched aims to explore these with interested parties across Northern Ireland. BRANDON HAMBER explains.

Although the conflict in and about Northern Ireland has its own peculiar manifestations and is unique in many ways, the challenge facing the society about how it deals with its past is not wholly distinct. Most countries in conflict have had to, at least at some point in time, face up to and deal with the hurts that have taken place. Different contexts obviously allow for this to be dealt with in different ways, including attempts to simply forget the past and move on.

However, whether we like it or not, questions about truth, justice, compensation and more recently of reconciliation are inevitable in any society moving toward peace. Northern Ireland is probably no exception. The problem, though, for societies coming out of conflict, especially where a negotiation has taken place, is that the solution to dealing with these issues is not clear-cut and no perfect model exists.

For this reason, the Healing Through Remembering Project was launched in early October this year with the intention of exploring various models for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. The Project seeks to identify and document possible mechanisms and realisable options for how remembering should occur so that healing can take place for all people affected by the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Building on previous local and international initiatives, the Project will undertake a range of consultations with organisations, communities, politicians and individuals on ways of dealing with the past and in so doing attempt to highlight some of the models and options that may work for Northern Ireland.

Prosecution, with the most well known case being that of the Nuremberg Trials, is in some senses the most straightforward option to consider — but such an option is based on a scenario of clear winners and losers. Justice in the formal sense of the word can only be followed through the courts where the weight of complex compromises between the victors and vanquished, as often typified in a negotiated solution to a conflict, does not exist. Moves toward setting up the International Criminal Court are intended to reinvigorate this clear-cut form of justice for those charged with war crimes and genocide. This attempt is aimed to stabilise some form of international justice for crimes that are abhorrent the world over and should stand outside of national borders and norms. However, domestic situations, and especially negotiated peace deals, often pose a range of interesting dilemmas when considering the prosecution option.

In South Africa, it is argued that amnesty — for better of for worse — was an integral part of the peace settlement. This made justice through the courts — as the only means for dealing with political crimes committed in the past — almost impossible. It was possible, though, to demand truth from all those who committed political violence, irrespective of their political affiliation, in exchange for amnesty.

This was, in part, made possible by the power-balance at the time of the changes in 1994. The ANC had enough power to put a condition on amnesty, whilst the apartheid-regime had sufficient power to ensure that some form of amnesty would be granted. The result was a truth commission process in South Africa that attempted to paint as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the conflict through the testimony of so-called victims and perpetrators alike. It was hoped that exposing the truth about the past would contribute to it never happening again and opening the window for reconciliation. This less than perfect model has, at least in part, worked for South Africa, although many victims still feel dissatisfied with the price of the compromises made.

In Rwanda, the situation (and the conflict) is profoundly different. Initially it was hoped that justice could be carried out through the courts against those accused of atrocities committed in the 1994 genocide. However, it has proved logistically impossible to try all 120,000 suspects who are crammed into jails. So recently it was agreed that the 10,000 or so people accused of master-minding the genocide will remain in the legal system, but the remainder will be invited to confess to traditional hearings in exchange for reduced sentences. It remains to be seen if this model of partial reconciliation will work or not.

These models, and the many more that are out there including Commissions of Inquiry — and not to forget some of the Eastern European models where those affiliated to parties responsible for abuses under communist governments were simply expelled from all forms of public office — all reflect local complexity and sensitivity. They also drive home the point that often in societies in transition, justice and truth can become little more than ideals in the shadow of a fraught past and compromised future.

In Northern Ireland, there has been some discussion of the role of truth, justice, reconciliation and compensation in the society. Few, however, to date have been willing to call for an all-encompassing truth commission in which all parties to the conflict would have to come forward and acknowledge their role in violence. At the same time, endeavours aimed at uncovering the truth are ongoing, with the most notable of these being the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. There is also a range of local story-telling, documentation and commemorative initiatives underway.

There seems to be growing controversy about whether more inquiries are needed in Northern Ireland and, if so, what they should look like and what cases should be selected. Similarly, most commemorative projects seem to focus on one community and an all-encompassing cross-community reconciliation initiative is yet to be mooted.

Of course, there are also those who say the past should simply be forgotten because any more delving into it will destabilise an already fragile peace process. At the same time, there are those who say the full truth needs to come out if a new future is to be built. In their view, there needs be an acknowledgement of wrong-doing from a range of role-players including paramilitaries, the State and even those who turned a blind eye allowing atrocities to continue, whilst doing very little to stop them.

The above opinions are undoubtedly controversial, but — whether we like it or not — questions about how the past should be addressed (or not) will continue to surface. To this end, it may be useful to start to try and debate the various options in a more open and public manner and the Healing Through Remembering Project intends to do just that.

The mission of the Project is simple: it is to go out there and ask people for their opinions on the issue of dealing with the past conflict. More specifically, the Project seeks to elicit opinion on whether remembering the events of the past can contribute to healing or not. The Project asks for practical suggestions on the type of initiatives that people think may be useful. Such initiatives could include, amongst others, the need for more localised story-telling initiatives, more (or less) need for public commissions of inquiry, or a process like a truth commission that could try and develop an official history of the causes and extent of the conflict.

There are no uncomplicated answers or even an easily identifiable option at this point, but the Project feels it is useful to ask the difficult questions if Northern Ireland is ever to hope to normalise. The ultimate purpose of the consultation process is to produce a document outlining a range of options for dealing with the past, remembering and truth recovery.

In terms of eliciting opinion, the consultation process will use four main mechanisms to ensure the depth and range of opinion is adequately tapped.

First, all interested groups and individuals, from any community, are invited to make a submission to the Project. To this end, all are asked to reflect on the question: How should people remember the events connected with the conflict in and about Northern Ireland and in so doing, individually and collectively contribute to healing the wounds of society?

Second, all umbrella bodies and organisations are encouraged to make a submission. The Project offers a limited opportunity for facilitating group meetings to clarify the aims of the project and assist with the submission writing process.

Third, a number of public events and discussions will be held at a variety of locations. These events will look at particular issues in more depth and will be aimed at imparting information to empower the public in making their submissions. Finally, to complement the above, key role players and experts — including, amongst others, community leaders, church leaders, politicians, academics, voluntary organisation leaders, journalists and publicly appointed figures of relevance — will be interviewed.

To conclude, it is clear that opinion out there ranges from those who think the past should simply be left alone, to those who still see prosecutions and an unwavering quest for the truth as the only way forward; notwithstanding those who favour some form of structured reconciliation process. The debate needs be opened up into a public space and all voices heard. This will help the Project to produce a practical menu of options of different approaches that — if implemented — may be useful in promoting healing in Northern Ireland through the process of remembering. It is also the only way to ensure that if, and only if, Northern Ireland chooses to embark on an official remembering process that is appropriate for the context and developed locally, and in so doing prevents some unsuitable model being forced in from the outside.

Brandon Hamber is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue and a Fellow in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University. He works as an independent consultant to the Healing Through Remembering Project.