Dealing with the Past: From Victimhood to Survival

6 January 2005

‘The past’ is a polite term to cover the pain of nearly 35 years of conflict. Over 3,500 were killed Thousands were physically injured. Tens of thousands lost loved ones. Nearly 20,000 went to prison.

How do we get to a point where we are no longer dominated by the past? There are only a limited number of options. It's worth looking at some of the pros and cons of each:

1. Legal justice.
2. Reconciliation.
3. Truth.
4. Amnesia.
5. A mixture of the above.
6. Staying stuck in the past.

1. Legal justice
Legal justice focuses on punishment through courts. But it is difficult to get convictions for Troubles-related crimes. This is partly because many murders took place decades ago and the IRA blew up the Forensic Laboratory in Belfast in 1992, thus making it difficult to get reliable evidence. Under the Agreement no one will serve more than two years, even if convicted. The police do not have the resources to investigate both Troubles-related murders and current policing needs.

So you may want legal justice but you are unlikely to get it.

2. Reconciliation
There are many different and often mutually exclusive meanings of reconciliation. Here are three:

  1. The Christian ideal: both forgiving and repenting are needed for reconciliation. Some Christians say repentance must come first, others that either can come first. Some say forgiving and apologizing have no role in politics. 

  2. Punishing the enemy

  3. Developing partnerships, which says nothing about forgiving or repenting. Was the exchange of ambassadors between the USA and Vietnam 20 years after the end of their war an act of reconciliation, a business decision, a step towards reconciliation, or a bit of all of these?

Reconciliation differs when it is between individuals, groups, or States. For example, if Aaron does something wrong to Joshua, then, if they are to be reconciled Aaron has to say sorry and Joshua has to forgive him.

With groups and States it is more complicated: what would reconciliation between the IRA and the DUP involve? An apology and the offer of forgiveness? But each side thinks what they did was right and what the other did was wrong.  Do other views of reconciliation work better? Does talk of  reconciliation in politics make any sense?

Three points come out of all this: we need to say what we mean if we talk about reconciliation. We should distinguish inter-personal from group and political situations. And if we focus on wrongdoing we need to ask: ‘Who has done what wrong to whom?’ Normally there will be great disagreement about this.

3. Truth
Many victims are not interested in punishment, they simply want the truth. In South Africa perpetrators who did not tell the truth were refused amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But one side won that conflict. Here it was a military stalemate. The prisoners have been released, so most do not need amnesty. Why then would either Government or paramilitaries tell the truth?

Public inquiries are unlikely to lead to much truth: the Ministry of Defense lost the guns used at Bloody Sunday before the Saville Enquiry. Unionists argue that inquiries put only the security forces in the dock and ignore what paramilitaries did. Republicans point out that many of their number went to prison. Further, the British Government always claimed to be better than the paramilitaries. Now it  turns out - as Republicans see it - that this was not the case.

The only type of Truth Commission which might work in our situation is one in which victims and perpetrators involved in the same incident voluntarily share information.

If you support a focus on truth, how much truth will you get?  How much will it alienate others if you get it?

4. Amnesia  
Many want to forget the past, move on, and make some money. But the past keeps coming back to bite us. Victims take cases to court and this leads to legal pressures on the Government. The Government makes concessions to Republicans in return for decommissioning. ‘Innocent’ victims complain that all the focus is on republican victims whereas their loved ones were murdered defending the State.

Forgetting the past is impossible. The pain is too great. But some recognize that they cannot bring back their loved ones and therefore stop talking about the past.

5. A mixture of approaches  
This view says: ‘Let’s use what helps in the above approaches’. Some suggestions put forward in the Healing Through Remembering Report were:

• Find ways to listen to the personal stories of those who wish to share them.
• An annual ‘day of reflection’.  
• A permanent living memorial museum

What can we do? Here are some questions we could usefully discuss:

For Individuals

• Can we say sorry for any of the things we did in the past?
• Given that we are highly unlikely to agree morally about the past is there any point in trying to persuade others that what they did was wrong?
Can we recognize the wrongs our group did? (A Republican told a group of Unionists that his group had been sectarian. It transformed the conversation. The same would be true if the roles were reversed).
• Can we enter into the pain of others, even though we believe that what they did was wrong? (It changes things when people believe their pain has been heard).
• Why do we remember the past? To blame others? To deal with our pain? Or simply to get the truth?

For Victims

• Are we moving towards being survivors? Or are we stuck as victims? If we are a victims’ ’organization when will our members be able to say they are no longer victims?  
• When is it helpful for victims to tell their story, and when does doing this keep them stuck in the past?

For Groups and Political Parties

• Can we find ways to remember the past which are less offensive to others?  
• Can we help families - even privately - find out what happened their loved ones?  
• Does the group to which we belong use victims for its own political ends?  
• Do we glorify the past and hide the pain from which so many suffered?

For All of Us • Many want to say: ‘The past is over’. But we may not be able to say this for years because there is too much pain. Do we need to accept this?