President Points The Way

 

The President, Mrs McAleese, appears to have hit her stride in her visit to Canada and the Boston area. Her packed schedule over two weeks through urban and rural centres across Canada bespoke a remarkable commitment of energy and enthusiasm and local media have commented positively on her sense of warmth and openness.

Her itinerary in Canada reveals a good deal about the style of this presidency. Not only did Mrs McAleese choose to visit the big cities and the centres of political power. She also wanted to see the small communities in the relatively remote areas of Newfoundland where Irish emigrants settled in the last century.

In the course of her Boston visit the President delivered a challenging address to The Irish Times / Harvard University Colloquium at the college's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The import of that address, which is published today on page 10, will repay careful reading as the people of this island begin to make the painful adjustment to daily life free of politically inspired violence.

In what she said at Harvard, she focused directly on the area where so many efforts at construction continue to founder. How does society grapple with the fact that one person's right of free speech or right to public assembly may be the source of another person's fear, the President asked her audience. How does society reconcile one community's right to march or to assemble with another community's right to live free of intimidation or provocation? And in a post-conflict phase, such as that now being entered in Ireland, how does society go about healing past wounds left by threats, fear and intimidation?

The President told her audience of the various regulatory devices which operate in Northern Ireland where one community's customs, traditions or language may inflame or intimidate members of the other community. She spoke of the work of the Parades Commission and the various legal measures which outlaw intimidatory or discriminatory practices and language in the workplace. The difficulty with this approach, she acknowledged, is that virtually every adjudication is perceived at community level in winlose terms. Should it not be possible, she asked, to develop procedures and models which will yield a winwin result?

Acknowledging that she was asking more questions than she had answers at this time, the President nevertheless indicated some important starting points. What is needed, she said, is not less freedom of expression but an enhancement of it and the provision of specific remedies, enabling victims of provocative speech and imagery to talk back, credibly and meaningfully. She urged further commitment of resources for education and research in this area and she called for the creation of "accessible and dedicated public talkback forums or mediation mechanisms".

South Africa has the model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ireland, North and South, has made a start in meeting the needs of victims of violence. But what the President is pointing towards are mechanisms which will go beyond establishing culpability or compensation entitlements for past wrongs. She is pointing to the need for institutions and structures which have a preventive role vis-a-vis the problems of incitement and provocation and which can sponsor dialogue not merely in the aftermath of division but in time to avert it. What shape such institutions or structures might have is not yet clear. Many agencies in the community - not least of all the media - could have a role to play. Mrs McAleese has opened the debate and clearly laid down the markers. If her lead is not taken up, it is certain that the objective of harmony between the two great traditions of this island will be, at very least, severely retarded.