Last week I took part in a television talk show filmed in the Crumlin Road Jail. The Victorian jail, built in 1846, is dank, cold and crumbling to the ground. It is one of the bleakest places in Belfast.
In the last few decades it served as a holding centre for prisoners who were to be tried in the courthouse across the street. All political prisoners in Northern Ireland would have passed through there at some point. But on the night of the television broadcast the prison provided a dramatic and historic backdrop to a discussion on how Northern Ireland should deal with its troubled past.
The lead in to the programme focused on South Africa. Much was said of our attempts to deal with the past as images of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission flashed on the screen. I was asked to follow this by reflecting on whether the South African model was appropriate for Northern Ireland.
In a world of sound bites for television I could add little. My obvious starting point was to say that every context is different and a unique solution for Northern Ireland is needed. No matter what approach is taken, society will have to deal with the delicate question of the truth about past atrocities.
Some moves are afoot in this regard. The British Secretary of State visited South Africa recently to draw lessons. He has also announced a consultation process. Various grassroots projects are also exploring the issue. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is also looking into it. It is fascinating to consider how South Africa is used in these discussions. The country has become symbolic of attempts to deal with the past. Irrespective of the successes and failures of the South African TRC, the country has become a metaphor for attempts to come clean about past violations.
By drawing on the South African experience you immediately signal the importance you are putting on acknowledging past political violations. The South African context has become a “surrogate” for discussion. That is to say people discuss the South African case, all the while making points about their own situation, which they are struggling to address directly.
But are such “surrogate” discussions helpful? Do they help address local issues or divert attention from them?
It is questionable at times whether some of those looking at the South African case are interested in detailed lesson-drawing or merely registering some sort of nominal interest for other purposes.
For example, the South African case has been used as a justification for similar truth commissions when little genuine commitment to dealing with the past is present. Nigeria had a truth commission and publicised widely that they were going the South African route. The government received some international kudos and legitimacy for this, but in the end the government buried the final report and this has meant little political change.
At the same time, the South African experience has been used positively. The Peruvians studied the South African case closely and used it to learn solid lessons for their truth commission. They drew “negative” lessons' taking careful note of the lack of follow-up to reparations in South Africa. They chose to use models from Chile and Argentina on reparations as they were more successful and they put steps in place not to repeat South Africa's mistakes.
Dealing with a legacy of political violence requires more than making the right noises concerning lesson-drawing. It is long-term commitment and an ongoing endeavour.
This year in Chile, those initially protected from justice, by a 1978 amnesty decree, are being prosecuted. The courts no longer apply the amnesty to forced disappearance cases. A new political will to enforce justice is now seemingly evident thirty years after the military coup that overthrew the Allende government in 1973.
In Chile, the previous amnesty laws have effectively been rubbished. Although the 1990 Chilean truth commission might have helped some victims tell their story and uncover some truth, many still want justice decades later. Society is finally obliging.
A truth commission does not draw a line in the sand. It can merely help shape future debate, hopefully more constructively.
Michael Ignatieff feels truth commissions do not find the complete truth but narrow the opportunity for permissible lies about the past. He is of the opinion that truth commissions can provide a frame for public discourse and memory. They create a new public space for an ongoing debate.
Addressing a legacy of political violence is a lengthy task. It is not just about a few minutes of good television. The South African approach of televised victim testimonies has, to some extent, contributed to an almost surreal take on how to deal with past violence. But mass violence is not theatre.
In Northern Ireland, it is time to move away from the stylised view of the past the Crumlin Road Jail television talk show embodied. We need to enquire into the shadowy and bitter reality such a setting actually represents.
The genuine lessons from other contexts must be explored in all their complexity. For South Africans this means we need to tell our story of the transition, warts and all. We all know the election of 1994 was no miracle. It was created through tough negotiation, consensus building and compromise. For Northern Ireland, it is time to get down to the business of genuinely addressing the past. The hard work is just about to begin.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 November 2004 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.