Now that the veteran peacemakers have completed their round of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it is worth drawing attention to another conference in Queen’s University Belfast that was held on April 1st. Rather than the high politics of powersharing, this conference, organised by members of the Truth Recovery Process (TRP), was focused on different ways of managing the trauma generated by the Troubles. The TRP is a group of individuals, north and south, whose secretary is historian and journalist Pádraig Yeates, and who believe in devising a means of facilitating truthful dialogue and the relaying of experiences to address the legacy of harm.
The conference started with this basic assertion: “Twenty-five years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the legacy of conflict and the suffering of victims and survivors urgently need to be addressed. So far, all attempts to do so have failed. The latest British government legislation has been spurned by all political parties, and polls suggest people wish to prioritise more honest ways of reviewing our past so that they can move towards a more reconciled society. How can this be achieved?”
Even at the time of the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, the main players had to be reminded of a glaring gap in their considerations by members of the Women’s Coalition
This is far from an abstract question. For far too long it has been tagged on to other, more high-profile dilemmas arising from the agreement. When compiling the 1999 landmark Lost Lives book detailing the deaths of the Troubles, one of its editors, David McKittrick, noted that when they began the project in 1992, “there was little or no appreciation of the needs of the bereaved”. Even at the time of the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, the main players had to be reminded of a glaring gap in their considerations by members of the Women’s Coalition, including Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice and Bronagh Hinds. As McWilliams has recorded, “We wrote the entire section on reconciliation and the needs of victims. That would not have been in the agreement – the whole restitution for victims, civic forum, resources for young people, community development, integrated education, shared education, the right of women to full and equal political participation.”
The TRP conference in April heard from victims and survivors of the North’s Troubles as well as from those with experience of conflicts in Chile, Columbia and South Africa. Archbishop Eamon Martin also spoke, emphasising that while those involved in religious life could create space for dialogue, “the churches have no desire to dominate such conversations. We are merely servants.”
This month also marks the 25th anniversary of the report of Kenneth Bloomfield, the commissioner for victims of the Troubles, titled We Will Remember Them. He was aware that the course of any process to deal with victims “will depend critically upon the progress of wider political development” and suggested “the possibility of benefiting from some form of truth and reconciliation commission at some stage should not be overlooked”. His report was controversial and led to accusations that in the weight he gave to different sufferings he was creating a “hierarchy of victimhood”, but he and others, including the Consultative Group on the Past in 2009, at least attempted something that too many politicians have elided. Interviewed for Susan McKay’s latest book on Northern Protestants, Eileen Weir, working in the Shankhill women’s centre, asserted of political leaders, “they’ve the cheek to turn around and call us resilient ... if we were resilient, we wouldn’t have the rates of suicide we have”.
The multitude of oral history projects in the North in recent years, however, incorporating a broad scale of personal testimonies, have demonstrated that sharing and recording can be cathartic
It would be naive to assume a truth commission would only hear the “truth”, but trying to find out what happened to loved ones remains critical to the bereaved. There has not even been an agreed definition of the victims of the Troubles. The multitude of oral history projects in the North in recent years, however, incorporating a broad scale of personal testimonies, have demonstrated that sharing and recording can be cathartic. As historian Ian McBride has noted in the second volume of Legacy Matters, a publication of the TRP, “in time it may also help us to understand that the inhabitants in NI do not all come neatly stacked in two opposing piles labelled ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’”.
Surely restorative justice and mediation, rather than an adversarial approach, are worth more serious consideration given the extent of the undercurrents of unhealed pain that the courts or legislation will not adequately address, in a place where history and memory are so relentlessly manipulated. McBride makes the point that in relation to memory studies, tiny Northern Ireland “presents a vast academic safari park. Where else can we find a society – or perhaps we should say two societies – that re-enact their violent past so obsessively?” That impulse also fuels demands for ever more extensive inquires, leads to glossing over inconvenient realities and bolsters partisan rewriting of history. Bringing politicians together was no mean feat in 1998, but as McBride puts it, this “has done nothing to resolve the conflict-about-the-conflict”.