Project to help North come to terms with past

Brandon Hamber

 The Irish Times, 26 March 2002

RITE AND REASON:  Time is running out for submissions to the Healing Through Remembering Project in Belfast, writes Brandon Hamber.


Although the conflict in and about Northern Ireland has its own particular manifestations, the challenge facing the society about how it deals with its past is not wholly distinct.


Most countries in conflict have had to, at some point in time, face up to and deal with the hurts that have taken place. Questions about truth, justice, compensation and reconciliation are inevitable.

After the second World War, the Nuremberg Trials were a mainstay of attempts to address what had happened. Truth-commission processes have been attempted in over 20 countries including Chile, Guatemala and South Africa.

These have attempted to paint as complete a picture as possible of the causes and extent of the conflict, and in so doing learn from the past so that mistakes will not be repeated. International tribunals, like the current Hague tribunal, have also become more commonplace in an attempt to entrench the rule of law globally.

Other societies, however, feel the burden of the past is too difficult to remember and choose to leave it alone in the interests of reconstruction. Mozambique, for instance. Some have chosen to write past atrocities completely out of their histories. For example, the Matabeleland massacres in 1985 in which over 10,000 people were killed by the Mugabe government is largely forgotten by the world.

On a different tack, some argue that the lack of reliable public information on the deaths caused by Western bombing in the Gulf War impede an honest reckoning with what took place there. And many African countries still feel that the legacy of colonisation has never been properly acknowledged.

The problem for societies coming out of conflict, especially where a negotiation has taken place, is that the solution to dealing with these issues is not as clear-cut as it was at Nuremberg and no perfect model exists. Remembering the past can be painful and contentious, especially in deeply divided societies. Each situation is unique.

The Healing Through Remembering Project launched in Belfast last year was set up 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 options for how remembering should occur so that healing can be fostered.

The mission of the project is simple: it is to go out there and ask people for their opinions on whether remembering the events of the past - on an individual, community or collective level - can contribute to healing. Options identified will be published in a public report by mid-2002 and presented to the various governments.

In Northern Ireland so far there have been few willing to call for an all-encompassing truth-recovery process 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 of some events are happening, with the most notable of these being the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

But there is growing controversy about how many more inquiries are needed in Northern Ireland, what they should look like and what cases should be selected. There is also a range of local story-telling, documentation and commemorative initiatives underway.

However, most commemorative projects focus on one community and an all-encompassing, cross-community reconciliation and remembering initiative has yet to be proposed.

Accordingly, the Healing Through Remembering Project is taking submissions and practical suggestions on the type of initiatives that people think may be useful. Such initiatives could include, among others, the need for more localised storytelling 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 magnitude of the conflict.

Of course, simply attempting to forget the past and move on because any more delving into it might destabilise the peace process is also an option. But this needs to be compared to the view, albeit optimistic, that a common truth about the past is a prerequisite to a solid future.

From this perspective, there needs be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing from a range of players, including paramilitaries, the state and those who turned a blind eye allowing atrocities to continue, before genuine societal progress can be made.

There are no straightforward answers, or one single option that easily stands out at this point. But there does seem to be a growing recognition - coupled with a high level of anxiety about what the revisiting of what the past might mean - that something in addition to the peace process may be needed if there is to be a sincere reckoning with the past.

To this end, the Healing Through Remembering Project feels it is useful to begin to ask the difficult question and seek answers through eliciting all opinions. Asking questions about the past is, in itself, a way of beginning to address the past, just as finding the public space to debate in a way that no longer involves violence is a prerequisite to lasting peace.

The closing date for submissions to the project is Tuesday 2nd April 2002. For more information on the project and for a submission form:

Got to, or e-mail:, or phone the office on 028 90 739601.

Brandon Hamber is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue and a fellow in the school of psychology at Queen's University Belfast. He works as an independent consultant to the Healing Through Remembering Project. Contact email: