Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Advocacy Services Research Report

 Today the Commission for Victims and Survivors of Northern Ireland (CVSNI) and Ulster University (INCORE & TJI) launched the Advocacy Services Report focusing on advocacy and dealing with the past. The report was authored by Dr Maire Braniff, Professor Brandon Hamber, Dr Catherine O'Rourke, Dr Philip McCready and Dr John Bell. 

The Report found that while the needs of victims and survivors are not homogenous there are core principles that underpin effective service provision. Essentially they should be victim-led, build trust, not create dependency, be compassionate and empathetic and value the lived experience and perspective of the individual. The groups offering advocacy were led by such principles. Further provision for dealing with the past should draw on and learn from the scale, diversity and experience of advocacy practice to date. 

Equally, however, our research found that this was challenging work. There was unanimity amongst all service users and service providers that the biggest challenge was the systemic delay and the slow nature of legacy investigation and information recovery. The biggest scope for improvement in advocacy services was the accessibility of information and more streamlined and quicker responses from statutory agencies. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Amnesty a line in the sand? It’s not even close

If we know anything about the Johnson government in the UK, they are not great at sticking to agreements or taking the views of the devolved nations seriously. The recent statement by the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, proposing new legislation to enforce a statute of limitations for all conflict-related violations in Northern Ireland fits this mould.

In July 2019, following a 15-month consultation on the legacy proposal in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) of 2014 agreed by all political parties, the British Government committed to its full implementation. Two years later, it is now proposing to pull the SHA apart.

The recent proposals remove a focus on justice and investigation, favouring information recovery and storytelling under an undefined banner of reconciliation. All of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, the Irish government, civil society organisations and most victims’ groups are heavily critical of what amounts to an amnesty for conflict-era offences. Yet, the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and especially victims of both state and non-state violence, seem to matter little.

Ostensibly, Northern Ireland victims are less important than a Tory manifesto pledge to stop so-called “vexatious” legal cases against former British soldiers, even if the price is also a paramilitary amnesty.

Yet, the actual case for amnesty in Lewis’ statement is rather flimsy.

Firstly, Lewis points out that criminal investigations are increasingly unlikely to deliver in court. We know as time passes this is not incorrect. But because justice is unlikely, should prosecutions be abandoned? Could we imagine doing the same for other crimes such as rape because it has a low conviction rate? Choosing to abandon prosecution is not a logistical issue but a political one.

Secondly, it is stated that the current system is not working. But there is no current system. It is a mishmash of processes. No systematic and over-arching attempt has been made to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, despite a set of agreed proposals being put forward in the SHA.

Thirdly, it is implied that amnesty is the only viable route. Yet the British consultation on the SHA points out that the overwhelming view from the 17,000 responses was that amnesty was not appropriate. Two years ago, it was perfectly feasible for the other SHA mechanisms such as storytelling and information recovery to run alongside justice processes, yet suddenly this is off the table.

There are other options under discussion. For example, British soldiers remain eligible for the same deal as paramilitaries in terms of early release under the Belfast Agreement. If convicted, a maximum of two years can be served for conflict crimes. A discussion on reducing the length of this requirement to zero is an option. More radically, another option is to consider amnesty in exchange for truth as per the South African model.

Finally, Lewis argues that it is the criminal justice process that is hampering reconciliation. Is the implication that offering a blanket amnesty will lead to those who committed crimes miraculously coming forward, sharing the truth and seeking reconciliation with those they harmed? If so, this is devoid of reality.

Furthermore, contrary to Lewis’ assertion of amnesty fostering reconciliation, the British government’s own consultation on the SHA points out that curtailing the right to justice would “risk progress towards reconciliation”, not promote it.

What we also know internationally is that amnesties can create a short-term hiatus in a political process, but when justice is evaded, it simply festers and re-emerges rather than creating reconciliation.

The Spanish 1977 amnesty or “pact of forgetting”, following the Franco regime, has not stopped recent attempts to prosecute those responsible. Spain remains deeply divided. In Chile, the amnesty passed by Pinochet in 1978 was overturned in 1998. This led to dozens of prosecutions of those responsible for disappearance and torture over the following decades. Even in South Africa, there are new moves to prosecute those who did not avail of the amnesty offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In this context, the current proposals are not the product of some difficult soul-searching and the only option left on the table. It is a cynical and calculated political move.

It fits a pattern of political evasion of truth that has been and continues to be fundamentally unjust to all victims. It demonstrates how little Northern Ireland victims mean to the UK government.

The major stumbling block to reconciliation and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland is not victims trying to exercise their rights to justice, but 50 years of avoidance, untruths and injustice.

What is needed now is courageous leadership that fulfils previous commitments and confronts the past head-on, not politicians trying to draw fanciful lines in the sand.

Far from dealing with the past, the proposed amnesty will simply redraw the battle lines for the future.

Published by Brandon Hamber in the Belfast Telegraph, 15 July 2021.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Seminar UN Secretary Generals’ Envoy on Youth

It was fantastic to chair a session on Thursday 20 May 2021, with the UN Secretary Generals’ Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake. In her talk the UN Envoy on Youth discussed UN priorities and issues concerning youth, peace and security.


This dialogue was part of the new seminar series entitled Youth, Peace and Security Leadership Series. The seminar series is a partnership between Ulster University (INCORE & TJI), The John and Pat Hume Foundation, John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace, International Fund for Ireland (IFI), the Centre for Youth Research and Dialogue and Interpeace.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves: ‘new normal’ is abnormal

I have published a new piece in Belfast Telegraph

In my work dealing with the impact of political violence, a constant challenge is reminding people that when addressing survivors’ needs during times of conflict, it is the social context that is often the primary stressor.

For example, as much as therapy for victims of conflict is useful, its value is limited if the conflict’s legacy persists and the social environment is destroyed. You also cannot think about conflict without understanding that it has differential impacts. In Northern Ireland, for example, the neighbourhoods with the highest conflict death rate are those with the highest levels of poverty.

When it comes to addressing the mental health impact of Covid-19, it seems we have a similar situation. We are acting as if the pandemic is only a medical problem, a behavioural issue (wear your mask, wash your hands, socially distance) and finally, a psychological question of coping mentally.

“Coronavirus — baby and mom” by  CC BY 2.0
The socio-environmental parts of the pandemic are under-emphasised, not to mention the political.

Yet, for many, their mental health in times of Covid-19 is not an issue of merely individual psychological coping mechanisms.

Mental well-being is undermined, for example, by losing your job, physical and psychological violence in the home during lockdowns, having a disability and living in cramped or unhealthy accommodation, among others.

Even those of us living in privilege are dealing with caring responsibilities, home-schooling, health issues and family and friends dying of Covid-19. All this in a context of 24-hour televised suffering and the Government failing to manage the process effectively.

Even for those lucky enough to have a good job, stress has been mounting over time, not decreasing. For many, the work experience (run from their homes) is like plugging holes in a sinking ship while continually eyeing the lifeboats.

Not to mention the daily struggles of healthcare and key workers on the frontline. There is no new normal, it is all profoundly abnormal. Many are confusing enforced haphazard adaptation with normalisation.

Of course, there are many individual actions that can help us cope: maintaining a routine; taking exercise; working on relaxation exercises such as mindfulness; getting plenty of sleep; ensuring you still connect with other people and, importantly, managing news and social media intake. I have used some of these myself. Problematically though, such interventions assume a standardised environmental context. Advising on actions such as relaxation, exercise and routinisation assumes you live in a safe, predictable and comfortable environment.

But like so much individual mental health advice, although well-meaning and helpful to some, it is acontextual.

Telling people to take care of their mental health while not talking about real-world needs is hollow.

Let’s stop pretending that bolstering individual psychological coping mechanisms can replace the need for environmental changes for some.

It is time for mental health professionals, employers and the Government to ask what people really need to improve their mental health during this pandemic. The answers they will get are not what they would want to hear.

The stress of those working while home-schooling and caring will be reduced by less work, not an online stress management workshop.

Some need proper working conditions and equipment. Others need professional guidance on maximising space in cramped homes and then their employer, or the state, supporting these changes.

In truth, an extra room in some homes would change some children’s lives more profoundly than anything else. Fixing the damp in some homes and ensuring adequate heating, let alone guaranteeing some families have enough food, would significantly impact on mental health.

Serious interventions such as removing an abusive partner, addressing alcoholism, loneliness, or those living with a disability in lockdown may be needed in other cases.

This may sound like a tall order, but the truth is real-life change is needed for many if we claim to want to take mental health seriously.

If we fuse home and work (as well as school and tertiary educational) life, we cannot hive off one from the other.

The realities Covid-19 has forced upon us and the problems it has aggravated are not something we only have to come to terms within our heads.

Psychological and social well-being are indivisible. What we are dealing with is a cocktail of problems at the intersection of Covid-19 health-related issues, the impact of lockdowns and social distancing, societal and political fragmentation and disparities in social and psychological need and support.

As hard as it is to consider in these gloomy times, we are being confronted with a reality that is beyond a short-term health crisis.

Instead of living in the hope of the vaccine, the next phase of pandemic management should target the diversity of need recognising how inequalities profoundly shape such conditions.

The advantage of such an approach is that post-pandemic recovery will be more sustainable and healthier for all. Otherwise, just as the legacy of conflict persists when we only remove the symptom of direct violence and do not address the underlying dynamics, varying levels of suffering will linger for years.

Published by Brandon Hamber, Belfast Telegraph, 23 March 2021. Also available on Medium.