Wednesday, June 11, 2003

A truth commission for Northern Ireland?

This week the BBC has been focusing on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. The most startling thing about this debate has been how issues have been narrowed before genuine discussion has started. Concepts like truth and justice have been bandied about as if they were mutually exclusive and as if they meant the same to everyone.

The South African model has been used as a benchmark for discussion, with little recognition of what it was about. The other twenty or so truth commissions, in societies as diverse as Ghana, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Sierra Leone, have meanwhile been ignored.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, it seems we all should have an opinion on whether there should be a truth commission for Northern Ireland. Ground work already done on these issues has been neglected, and more measured approaches circumvented.

Debate on this issue is vital, and the more the better. But some key points have been lost in the media circus.

First, dealing with decades of conflict is long-term, complex and time-consuming. It cannot be summed up in a few interviews or emails. It will not entail a single approach or model. International lessons suggest it takes decades. We should not look for any quick fixes.

We should not rush into opinions on different methods before we have agreed that remembering, acknowledgement, truth and justice are important issues for victims and society at large. We must interrogate what we mean by these terms and debate our different perspectives.

The past can only be dealt with if all concerned enter the debate in an inclusive way, aimed at entrenching peace. We should not underestimate the importance of getting this right, ensuring that the discussion is aimed at reconciliation and not point-scoring.

If we do not first agree the underlying principles, all discussion will be contorted and subject to political wrangling. This will ultimately result in mechanisms that will continue the conflict by different means, rather than finding ways constructively to resolve it.

The most extensive consultation on this issue to date has been carried out by the Healing Through Remembering Project. This sought to document possible mechanisms and realisable options for how remembering should occur, so that healing could take place for all those affected. This took two years of discussion.

Importantly, this consultation was run by a board reflecting a range of very diverse backgrounds. The project received over 100 written submissions and recorded thousands of hits on its website.

Many submissions endorsed the value of remembering and spoke of the importance of finding ways to move society forward. But others expressed concerns about the potential pitfalls. The idea of remembering also evoked an emotional response, indicative of much hurt and unresolved pain. The project’s recommendations include a focus on truth recovery, but extend well beyond it.

This is the second point: dealing with the past needs to be seen as wider than a truth-recovery process. Any such mechanism should run alongside other initiatives, such as storytelling, a living museum about the conflict, an annual day of reflection and a network of commemoration projects. Many community projects are also part of the picture.

In the same vein, although victims are central in dealing with the past, thorough engagement demands a focus on the entire society. This is vital when considering the issue of responsibility for the hurts suffered.

It was pointed out in several of the submissions that the need to revisit the past was not confined to those who saw themselves as primarily involved in the conflict: politicians, victims and those who carried out violent acts. For any collective remembering to be helpful it needs to engage the entire society and particularly those who saw themselves as ‘uninvolved'. The whole society has a responsibility to deal with the past.

Thirdly, the Healing Through Remembering Project does recommend that a formal truth-recovery process should be given careful consideration, though only as one part of dealing with the past. But it stipulates that an important first step is a process of acknowledgement, by all, of acts of commission and/or omission.

Political parties, the British and Irish states, republican and loyalist paramilitaries and other institutions would all need fully to acknowledge the extent of their particular culpability. In fact, we should all consider what we have done and have not done to prevent loss of life. Sincere acknowledgment is the key foundation for exploring truth recovery in an even-tempered, self-effacing and responsible manner.

Copyright Brandon Hamber 11 June 2003

Brandon Hamber works as an independent consultant to the Healing Through Remembering Project and is a research associate of Democratic Dialogue in Belfast.