Archbishop calls for fresh approach to deal with Northern Ireland’s legacy issues

North still lacking ‘an authentic and honest critique of the past’, says Catholic Primate

Northern Ireland is still lacking “an authentic and honest critique of the past”, Archbishop Eamon Martin has said as he called for a fresh approach to deal with legacy issues.

Speaking in Belfast on Saturday, the Catholic Primate of All-Ireland spoke about continued sectarian violence in the North, and reiterated his view that churches could play a role in healing divisions.

“To leave unchecked sectarianism, bigotry, hatred and violence between Christians, is a grave scandal,” the archbishop said.

“If a truth recovery process is to lead to genuine reconciliation it will include an authentic and honest critique of the past which recognises the immense pain and life-changing trauma which actions or inactions have caused to a fellow human being.”


In an address to the “Living the Agreement – Legacy Matters” conference at Queen’s University Belfast Great Hall, Archbishop Martin revealed that he received a “quite mixed” response to his proposal at an ecumenical service last January that churches would offer to help develop an agreed truth recovery process to address legacy issues.

“Some welcomed my comments warmly and acknowledged that the churches might have a significant contribution to make, especially given the overwhelming lack of support here for the Westminster government’s current Northern Ireland Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill... Other correspondents were more hard hitting, including several anonymous social media commentators who told me to ‘just go away’.

“Various people questioned if the churches could be impartial, citing what they said was the churches’ poor leadership during the Troubles and collective failure to sufficiently condemn violence, sectarianism and injustice from one side or another. Examples were given of clergy publicly supporting paramilitary campaigns. The Catholic Church’s damaged credibility in getting to the truth about abuse was also pointed out to me several times.”

But the archbishop said he was unsettled most by a letter writer, whose brother was murdered during the Troubles, who wrote: “Words are well and good – words like ‘draw a line’, ‘get on with your life’, ‘forget the past’. I don’t dwell on the past, but I refuse to let others tell me how to deal with it… this toxic topic of legacy will still go on long after all our family members have passed on. The word reconciliation, in my opinion, is as toxic as the whole legacy and truth and justice process.”

Archbishop Martin said: “His words are a sad indictment of where we seem to be, 25 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and a challenge to all of us, including the churches, to really get where victims are coming from. In every conversation about legacy, truth and reconciliation, the views of victims and survivors of the conflict must remain front and centre.”

Highlighting the violence that continues today, he added: “Almost a thousand sectarian hate crimes continue every year; the recent inexcusable and life-changing attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, reminds us of where we’ve been and where we do not wish to return; the security threat is once more deemed to be ‘severe’; human rights and dignity remain threatened by ongoing paramilitary style intimidation and punishments; too many communities remain barricaded off from each other behind so-called ‘peace walls’.

“In communities with multiple deprivation, including the highest levels of child poverty and destitution, self-harm and suicide – those very communities which were most impacted by paramilitary activity and security force presence during the conflict – there is little to celebrate by way of a peace ‘dividend’.”

The Archbishop said on Sunday he would pray once more with the families of the Disappeared.

“Their experience and painful vigil has many lessons for the wider healing and reconciliation of our troubled past. Perhaps more than others, they appreciate how precious it is when someone comes forward and shares details of what they knew, or did, way back then,” he said.

“I avail of this opportunity to appeal again to the conscience of anyone who can help with the cases of Lisa Dorrian, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Maguire, Columba McVeigh and Robert Nairac, to bring forward even the slightest clues to shorten the agonising wait of their families and support persons and allow them at last to have a Christian burial.”

The archbishop said “the presence of so many obstacles has led to some suggesting that we would be better with a kind of agreed ‘amnesia’, pretending that we can somehow draw a line under the past”.

However, he said he believed “our failure to recover the truth will only continue to undermine the foundations on which our peace is built and stifle the opportunity for ongoing peace-making and reconciliation”.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times