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Future Policies for the Past

Executive summary

Despite, though in some ways because of, the Belfast agreement, the issue of 'victims' in Northern Ireland has become increasingly fraught - a matter for distress among those suffering or bereaved and for exploitation by ethno-nationalist protagonists in the political sphere. A durable and profound peace can only emerge when those who have lost most from the past three decades of violence can feel reconciled to the future. Paradoxically, that means the whole society coming to terms with its past.

The agreement accepted the need to address the concerns of victims and, relatedly, to promote reconciliation in what remains a severely divided society. The draft Programme for Government of the Executive Committee promises to elaborate a cross-departmental strategy on victims by April this year.

In developing its services for victims, the devolved administration should start from the premiss that every victim is an individual with particular needs and that those needs should be explored with victims and their representatives if appropriate services are to be provided in an appropriate fashion. In some cases, these services will best be delivered via, or in conjunction with, voluntary providers. In all cases, they should be evidence-based.

Compensation is no substitute for a portfolio of tailored, effective services, and it remains a matter 'reserved' to the Northern Ireland Office. Some reforms have been promised but they are unlikely to materialise until 2002; a long-run concern remains that under the proposed 'tariff' system, the relatively (though not absolutely) high levels paid in Northern Ireland for criminal injuries compared with the rest of the UK might be eroded. Compensation also does not negate other needs of victims, such as the need for truth and justice.

Government, at whatever level, needs to be guided not only by the inherent individuality of all victims but also by their inherent equality. Invidious distinctions defining 'real' or 'innocent' victims should be avoided, and the minority who have been victimised by the state should not be subject to neglect through official embarrassment.

To ensure victims' needs are addressed in a 'joined-up' way, there should be a 'victims minister' within the devolved administration with a public profile and responsibility for victims issues, currently one of 26 functions in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister. The doubling-up of an NIO 'security' minister in that role is highly undesirable.

But given the wider challenges and the fragmentation and mistrust among victims' organisations, an independent victims' ombudsperson or commissioner should be appointed. He or she would champion, equally, the interests of all victims and broker better relationships among them.

The 3,500 or so who have died as a result of the 'troubles' are but the umbra of a much wider penumbra of relatives and friends that have left few in the society untouched and its social fabric badly torn. Larger questions therefore arise about how this individual and social damage can begin to be mended. Repentance, reparation and reconciliation are the '3Rs' on which to base this approach. Underlying them all is the theme of responsibility.

By setting out no clear vision of the future and no agreed account of the past - for fear of upsetting political or paramilitary élites - the Belfast agreement has created a situation of moral hazard characterised by a blame-game and displacement of responsibility. Responsibility for past acts needs to be accepted by the individual perpetrators: violence was not just a reflex response to circumstance. But it also needs to be accepted by society, including by the many who feel no implication in the violence yet by their 'sins of omission' allowed it to continue.

With responsibility comes repentance and a willingness to make reparation. But it also requires a willingness on the part of others to offer forgiveness and to be reconciled. Paradoxically, individual victims of violence - on whom forgiveness should not be forced - have often been more forthcoming in this regard than political entrepreneurs.

Reconciliation is, however, impossible for many victims unless the truth of how they or a loved one was victimised can be told - to them or by them. 'Story-telling' has played an important role in the support of victims, though care is needed to ensure victims do not perversely become trapped in that identity. A far more controversial issue is how victims might secure the truth themselves.

One suggestion is a truth and reconciliation commission, such as was employed in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid and in several Latin American countries emerging from dictatorship. There are aspects of violence in Northern Ireland that have had a similar, 'vertical' - state versus people - character as in these anti-democratic régimes. But, however imperfect, Northern Ireland has been part of a western parliamentary democracy and its violence has been primarily of a 'horizontal', intercommunal character, even when the state has been a proxy.

Yet the role of the state has led to oppressive violence, and the Bloody Sunday Tribunal is a commission of inquiry which may reveal some of what happened that day. Other inquiries might reasonably follow, so that victims of this 'state violence' can secure the truth to which they are entitled.

This is, however, of little relevance to the great bulk of victims of paramilitary violence. No truth commission can compel a paramilitary leader to attend or subpoena documentary evidence of how killings were directed; indeed, the Belfast agreement has specifically sought not to make such leaders amenable for past acts. In any event, the political consensus required to establish a truth commission is lacking and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Thus no one such mechanism can turn the trick. What is required is an equally horizontal process of dialogue, which explores past hurts and seeks, painfully and piecemeal, to develop the potential for repentance, reparation and reconciliation. It is a dialogue in which the whole society needs to engage, in a range of safe and secure environments, if Northern Ireland is to realise a peace that is secure and a solidarity that goes beyond roots.

Civic and political leaders have a particular responsibility in this regard. They can lead by example through rituals which explore repentance, reparation and reconciliation. An annual day of reconciliation would give focus to this endeavour. But all the citizens of Northern Ireland have the capacity, in a myriad of small ways, to ensure that sins of commission or omission are addressed and fresh stitches applied to the social fabric, so that we can all become 'members one of another'.


Dorte Kulle
Brandon Hamber

With the beginning of the new millennium in the aftermath of the Belfast agreement, the potential for an entrenched peace in Northern Ireland is becoming real. Yet implementation of the agreement has been retarded by issues arising from the exercise of force: weapons, security, policing. And, in tandem with these continuing challenges, an underlying theme of grief and resentment has arisen from the experiences of the 'victims' or 'survivors' of the 'troubles' - individuals who have had their rights as citizens violated through acts of commission or omission by paramilitary organisations, the state or other individuals.

Some would claim that all those who have grown up since 1969 are victims. From this perspective all have suffered because of the conflict. In allowing us to construct a continuum of suffering, this might be helpful (though see below). Albeit artificial, and contentious, such a construct would place towards one end of the continuum all those who have, as bystanders or merely by living in Northern Ireland, been affected in some way. At the other extreme would be all those severely affected through losing a loved one or being injured themselves. Those who witnessed suffering directly might fall somewhere in between.

But the 'victims debate' is not only about whether one agrees with such a view. Initiatives to assist victims and survivors are also connected, politically and socially, to different groups in Northern Ireland. They reflect the political diversity of the society, with some victims groups having specific allegiances or affiliations. In addition, the difficulties facing victims represent a microcosm of the broader process of dealing with the violence of the past, and present.

If the agreement has been undermined by politicking, dealing with the past and the needs of victims have also become complicated by political blame-games. Who is most responsible for the victimisation of others? Which victims are more deserving of services, given their political 'persuasion' (an ironic term in Northern Ireland, as persuasion doesn't much come into it)? This has divided grieving and injured parties even further. Such divisive action is evidence of the truism that the discussion of how this society should deal with its 'troubled' past - and, more specifically, its victims - is merely beginning.

In Northern Ireland the number of victims and survivors groups seems to be ever-growing. There appears to be too little support for all those seeking it. Amid contention, often involving political actors, over how the term 'victim' should be defined and who the 'real' (sic) victims are, there has been much labelling and passing judgement, and the entire issue has become incredibly sensitive. Competition for funds between groups, from different or even similar political backgrounds, has heightened the tensions.

In our opinion, the range of definitions of the term 'victim' is broad and would, to a large degree, depend on the context of the person speaking. At the end of the day, if an individual feels 'victimised', then this requires some attention, within the bounds of responsible society, irrespective of political leaning. Most 'victims', however, do not like the term: it traps them in a specific moment when they experienced loss and it reduces their identification to that experience.

The term 'survivor' has become more politically correct because it implies something more active - someone who has dealt with their circumstances and moved on. A survivor is seen as a victim coming to terms with their loss and able to interact with society and, perhaps, with the perpetrator to some degree. The survivor feels they have survived, are more resilient to hardship and have, although wishing the event had never happened, taken something positive from the experience. It can be defined as reaching a self-empowerment, despite what has happened. But this term, equally, can be difficult: some people say they still feel like 'victims', and that reality for them does not otherwise allow.

While we use the term 'victims' throughout this report, this should be taken as shorthand for 'victims and survivors'.

An even more highly disputed question is whether 'perpetrators' should be seen as victims. Most perpetrators will be able to point to some experience - often an experience which they claim drove them to action - of themselves or their family being victimised. Others claim to have responded to a war-like context that demanded action, or that they were manipulated by nefarious people in political authority. Thus many feel - obviously contentiously - that they do not need to take full personal responsibility, outside of understanding their actions within a specific social and political context.

All these issues are debatable. But there seems to be little rational - still less unemotional - debate about victims, perpetrators and the past in Northern Ireland. On many levels this is understandable, given what has happened, but the current antagonistic approaches allow exclusivist agendas to overshadow bridge-building initiatives.

Those in political positions will often argue that victims should be dealt with differently, depending on their political identity, or that at least the suffering of victims in a community should be constantly balanced with what perpetrators from that community did. This approach runs the risk of creating marginalised groups of victims who will remain unheard and embittered, even if the 'peace process' unfolds on a positive trajectory. A vigorous discussion about responsibility and what can be done to rectify the situation is needed, as well as an acknowledgment that some have been more severely affected than others and that their needs require attention.

Perhaps it is too ambitious to expect all the parties to put aside political point-scoring in an environment where the balance of power remains so fine between parties and the wounds are so fresh. Ironically, though, it is often the bereaved and injured themselves, as well as people directly engaged with victims and survivors - rather than those less affected by the 'troubles' - who are willing to immerse themselves in the debates. Perhaps we all should take a lead from them.

The debate over how to deal with the struggles of those victimised during political conflict in the post-conflict stage - and whether one can genuinely so describe Northern Ireland remains in contention - typically revolves around truth and justice, responsibility, compensation and funding of support initiatives. These questions have been common in most societies coming out of violence: a recent list could include Guatemala, South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda and East Timor, to mention but a few. In all these societies victims' needs are paramount and pressing, and will remain so for years to come.

Mutual respect and openness to others' experience of suffering could potentially shift the focus from political antagonism to inclusive agendas - emphasising our common (in)humanity to consolidate peace. Perhaps there will be a recognition of responsibilities when the time is right for everyone to reflect critically on their (in)actions and those of others. For this to happen, a debate needs to take place between all citizens in Northern Ireland - not just those directly affected or victimised.

'We need to be very careful of going down the road of inventing sanitised or euphemistic language to describe some of the worst atrocities that ever happened ... Victim is a horrible word: it is a word that is offensive, it is a word that isn't nice, but it is a word that accurately describes what was done to our loved ones.'

International experience suggests that the past has to be dealt with in some way. Victims' needs must be met: violent acts will not simply be forgotten. Without attention of some kind - be that investigations or support services like counselling - past violent incidents run the risk of acquiring entrenched mythical status. Such myths can easily be used by political protagonists for their own ends and lead to further conflict. This prospect threatens to unravel the 'peace process' in the long run - or, at least, to create a class of disaffected individuals who feel they have no place in the new order.

The 'we are all victims' discourse however runs the risk of subsuming individual traumas into a narrative of collective trauma. This could further desensitise the public to the needs of some victims or survivors. The way the affected cope with suffering is shaped by the social context, but the experience is always individual.

Trauma, like losing a loved one or being violently injured, requires individual attention. Accounts of violent acts also need to be told and heard, shared and remembered (or forgotten), depending on the survivor's way of coming to terms with the past.

Dealing with the needs of victims should be an inclusive process, based on a specific analysis of the needs of the bereaved and injured. It should work at two levels.

First, Northern Ireland will have to deal with broader policy issues in relation to victimisation. Such a discussion will move beyond simply addressing the direct needs of victims. It will face simultaneously the complex issues of reconciliation, truth and victims' needs.

Such an approach could include a truth commission or specific commissions of inquiry. A number of initiatives in Northern Ireland are already working with people's stories, but perhaps it would be useful to establish a more public mechanism to ensure that the bereaved feel that their suffering and loss are being more formally acknowledged. At this stage, there are no clear cut answers as to what form such a process, or processes, might take. But the debate remains critical: indeed, it spurred DD to hold a round-table on victims policy and the issue is addressed throughout this report.

Secondly, despite some valiant programmes in Northern Ireland, the services individual victims receive need to be streamlined and continually developed. This has received increased attention since the ceasefires of 1994. In November 1997, a victims commission was initiated by the former secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, and Sir Kenneth Bloomfield (1998) delivered a report in April the following year. This report outlined possible ways to recognise the pain and suffering of 'troubles' victims and John Wilson was subsequently commissioned by the republic's government to do a similar task (Wilson, 1999).

These initiatives became more relevant following the support for reconciliation and victims of violence expressed in the Belfast agreement of April 1998. The relevant paragraphs acknowledge the suffering of victims and emphasise the right to remember past atrocities. The need for support from statutory and community-based voluntary organisations is also stressed. The paragraphs are integrated with the complex issues of reconciliation but make a commitment to dealing with the needs of victims.

The work of the contributors and respondents to the round table - a diverse group of individuals who have accumulated considerable expertise in this area - is reflected in this report. Each was asked to address broad policy issues or services for victims. Three of the papers, and the responses to them, deal with themes associated with the macro-political questions:

  • forgiveness and reconciliation,
  • truth and justice, and
  • commemoration and remembering.

Two papers, and associated responses, then deal with practical concerns about victim services and trauma, under the headings:

  • compensation and reparation, and
  • trauma practice.

Northern Ireland has a long way to go before it becomes a peaceful society. Reconciliation as a concept, or dealing with the past effectively, does not harmonise with the current antagonistic approaches and, specifically, with the playing on victims' hardships by politicians anxious to score political points.

Perhaps when the time is right, or when a broader policy is in place, everyone in the society will be able to reflect critically upon their actions and those of others, as a way of entrenching peace and producing a new version of humanity and understanding. The past needs to be dealt with, symbolically and concretely, and accounts of violent acts need to be heard this is one of the strongest international lessons.

In this process, healing will not come for individuals who have been traumatised by past atrocities without the transformation of Northern Ireland from a place of 'low-scale civil war' to a society of relative peace and tolerance. We trust the views reflected in this report will assist to move it one more step down this road.


Bloomfield, K (1998), We will Remember Them, Belfast: Northern Ireland Office
Wilson, J (1999), A Place and A Name, Dublin: Stationery Office

Forgiveness and reconciliation

Duncan Morrow

Forgiveness to the injured does belong; for they neer pardon, who have done the wrong (Dryden, 1688: 2,1, ii).

There are many reasons to be nervous in writing about forgiveness and reconciliation. Few subjects descend so quickly into glibness or piety. Yet few lend themselves so easily to the cowardice of avoidance.

Just to acknowledge forgiveness and reconciliation as critical social questions is to invite disdain. Marxists seem to treat them as sentimental, 'bourgeois' constructs, irrelevant to the course of History. Yet, in all our experience, the traumas of injury and oppression acquire a centrality for human beings and groups that defies rigid adherence to 'scientific socialism'.

But even if we do build our politics on the real value of human persons and the possibilities of change and renewal, these subjects are so fraught with danger that most politics - certainly good, secular, liberal, western politics - fights shy of them. We content ourselves with tolerance, with rights, with the limited state and with a comfortingly sharp division between public and private. And with good reason: there are few other subjects that show up the lack of depth in liberal sensibilities and illustrate the limit of the coercive power of the state.

Yet, beyond doubt, there are some political circumstances where success depends on our capacity to reach beyond what might be reasonably demanded - and some events that leave such indelible marks as to resist any glib instruction to get over them.

A rabbi asked his students: when, at dawn, can one tell the light from the darkness? One student replied: when I can tell a goat from a donkey. No, answered the rabbi. Another said: when I can tell a palm tree from a fig. No, answered the rabbi again. Well then, what is the answer? His students pressed him. Not until you look into the face of every man and woman and see your brother and your sister, said the rabbi. Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness (Hasidic tale in Arnold, 1999: 32).

We speak of forgiveness far too cheaply. First, by always talking about the noun - forgiveness - we easily give the impression that this is a readily accessible, ready-to-wear object, with a predictable shape. Yet forgiveness is nothing more nor less than the result of forgiving: it takes all of its meaning from an active verb. To forgive is a human action, a deed that changes relationships - indeed the whole world - fundamentally.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology, the prefix 'for-' indicates exhaustion. At its root, to forgive means 'to give totally'. This giving is qualitatively different from all other because it knows of no restriction. To forgive means that 'what happened has no consequences for our relationship'. When I see you, I do not see the injury or the guilt, but you; I accept you, without restriction, back into my life.

This does not mean that we always heal totally, physically or mentally. Nor does it imply that we can restore the status quo ante. But it does mean that reality is no longer veiled by our frustration, guilt, hate or tears. It is in this sense that forgiving recreates reality in a totally new way.

The first striking aspect of forgiving is this transformation: a relationship characterised by guilt and injury is changed into something open and real. The cliché that one shall 'forgive but not forget' may represent a brave compromise with the impossibility of complete forgiveness. But it sustains us in our predicament - of relationships filled with injury from which we cannot escape - even as it recognises that every other possibility may be even more difficult to attempt.

By selling an idea of forgiveness which does not free all parties from their debts, we ultimately tie each other up in powerful contradictions. Ideologically, we proclaim that everything is over; in our depths, bitterness and guilt live on. If we cannot forgive - and some of the injuries for which we so easily call for forgiveness strike so deeply to the core of who we are that they hardly allow for it - then it is better that we acknowledge our difficulties. Better, this, than to pretend to what we have not found, or to force others to mouth words that only redouble the injury.

Secondly, forgiving is always connected to ideas of guilt and responsibility to others. Guilt is the consequence of the offences for which we are responsible. Ultimately, guilt is not even dependent on having wilfully committed the offence. In the end, it is not the intention to offend but the fact of doing something that hurts somebody that makes us guilty. Intention only makes the wrong clearer.

Guilt always exists within a relationship with somebody else whom one has wronged or with the community to which they belong. Paradoxically, it both isolates us from each other and ties us up more tightly, albeit in an increasingly destructive relationship. When we ask for forgiveness, we are asking for a restoration of our relationship and for the removal of the obstacles which our deeds and omissions have left between us.

Because guilt and even injury is within a relationship, forgiving and reconciling is only really possible if it is requested, or at least accepted. Without this mutuality, the absence of real forgiveness remains, at best, a hidden scar that continues to disfigure our life. One of our predicaments as a society is that for as long as no forgiveness is asked for, or accepted, it cannot be fully given. Because forgiving is about relationships, the old question of whether forgiveness precedes or follows repentance is beside the point. In either case, the scar remains until the relationship is healed.

Forgiving comes a lot harder


Thirdly, the decision to forgive belongs irreducibly to the injured and cannot be taken away from them. Jewish thinkers after the Holocaust have emphasised that only those who experienced the killing could forgive their killers. While in essence this must be correct, we might extend it. A killing destroys not only the dead but traumatises the living. Guilt and injury are not limited to the person killed but to everyone so traumatised.

Thus, if relationships are to be reconciled, the living have to find a way not to forgive the damage done between the killer and the killed but that done to their own relationship with the killer and to those connected to him. This is probably even more difficult, but it may be the only chance of healing between the living after the horror of the murder of a loved one.

A state is a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate right to use physical force within a given territory ... The state is considered the sole source of the right to use violence (Weber, 1970: 78).

Forgiving is always a gift, something freely given: forced forgiveness is not forgiveness. Furthermore, forgiving is always going beyond justice and law, even against it. By definition only injustices - always breaches - need to be forgiven. Forgiveness is therefore only possible as a free decision rooted in the conviction that life depends on it. As soon as forgiving is brought into the realm of compulsion, it becomes a moralistic means to destroy the injured. It is this reality which separates interpersonal forgiveness from the realm of formal politics.

Of course, this is essentially no different from the situation facing any victim of crime. While the state prosecutes murder, that same act limits all revenge. Personal forgiveness is neither sought nor required. After serving a court-imposed sentence, any debt is considered 'paid for'. In many ways, this gaping hole in criminal justice is the origin of the interest in restorative justice.

What makes forgiveness so burning in Northern Ireland is not that many victims are left with their injury, but that so many of the injuries are understood as the grief not only of individuals but of whole communities. Injury can thus make political demands and seek political action, with all the risks involved. The decision to forgive, or not, usually private in western societies, becomes of importance to everyone - because without it the political stability of the whole system is endangered.

If politics is limited in its capacity to enforce forgiveness or reconciliation, the question arises as to whether forgiveness and reconciliation are not ideas best left out of political calculations. And indeed this is the position of numerous political realists, for whom reconciliation should be conceived only in the narrow sense as better than war. Piet Meiring (2000: 74) highlighted the division over reconciliation in reflecting on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of which he was a member:

On the one hand there were the lawyers and jurists and politicians who, their feet firmly planted on terra firma, warned that we should not be too starry-eyed about reconciliation. When the dust settles in the street, when the shooting stops, when people let go of one another's throats, be grateful ... that is, in our context, as far as reconciliation goes. Archbishop Tutu and the Baruti (priests), on the other hand, favoured a far more lofty definition.

Certainly, we cannot expect the hugs and tears associated with reconciliation between estranged friends to be the mark of the politics. Politics is as much about seeking agreement on the rules governing the use of force as a taking leave of it. Political peacemaking usually focuses on the crucial task of building a political system accepted by all - which 'enjoys a transcendent legitimacy'.

Unless political leaders devise something positive to replace war, a superficial absence of war masks a relationship in turmoil, where each party merely prepares for the next decisive shift in the balance of power. In the absence of political stability, all relationships are vulnerable to the intrusion of violence and the consequent erosion of society. In the long run, the security of a peace deal, and the depth of peace in politics, can be measured by how much more it represents than the absence of war.

As Frank Wright (1987) has shown us, what passed for peace in Northern Ireland before 1968 was too often a surface tranquillity resting on an unstable balance of deterrence. The use of violence by one group against another always had the potential to evolve into a cycle of destruction and revenge, which could only be 'resolved' by victory and defeat. Where politicised groups of similar size and power engage in inter-group killing, as has occurred in Northern Ireland, there is considerable potential for these cycles to be endless.

Peace in such settings depends on new agreements about the law, political power and the use of force, reached only after considerable mutual injury. Political reconciliation between groups in public life depends on a certainty about the legitimate and illegitimate use of violence - whether exercised by or against them.

Forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be forced. But the quest for stable politics depends on the willingness of leaders to make a new political relationship in which they see one another as partners rather than enemies. This may require all sorts of 'confidence-building measures' (these are nouns), and the way to reconciliation may depend on a series of choreographed steps. But no amount of technical expertise can remove the loneliness of the decision, or more likely the series of decisions, to trust (another verb).

The questions politicians seeking peace have to resolve are questions of price. What must we forego if we are to end the cycle of revenge? Or, even more starkly: what must we reconcile ourselves to if we are to establish reconciliation between one another? In an economy of revenge, in which there can be no rest while debts remain unpaid, what are the debts of injustice owed to us that we now have to forgive?

Reconciliation in politics will thus be characterised by many of the same dimensions as forgiveness between individuals:

  • reconciliation cannot happen without a decision which represents a profound rupture with the past;
  • the quest is for a new and transforming political relationship, only possible because of a willingness to forgive and be forgiven for injustice carried out in one's name in the past;
  • after these decisions, the old world is only accessible from the new - it really is past;
  • political debts are cancelled and no longer count except in the clear terms conceived of in the agreement;
  • guilt and injury are dealt with only in the context of the new relationship;
  • there may still be reparation and readjustment, but these are freely undertaken and accepted;
  • all public justice takes its bearings from the primacy of the new political relationship, and
  • institutions are secure on the basis of mutual trust, rather than militant defence.

The extent to which politicians can make these decisions depends on their relationship with their supporters. In modern politics, leaders can only make peace in those areas in which their supporters give them a mandate. If that mandate is withdrawn, the politician is likely to be defeated.

The ability of political leaders to apologise on behalf of their people without being defeated is closely tied to the willingness of people to contemplate forgiving one another. Where injury and trauma are widespread, the task of reconciliation is an inevitably complex relationship between the achievable limits of politics and the capacity of traumatised communities to forgive and be forgiven.

Wise politicians stick to what they think their constituency can bear. Appearing to ask for, or grant, forgiveness on behalf of people who have not been directly consulted is a risky business - seeming to force people into a relationship which they cannot yet contemplate. By far the most effective acts of leadership are not the results of policies but deeply vulnerable personal acts of contrition or forgiveness, which do not bind others but create space for movement and change. One thinks of Willi Brandt's spontaneous falling to his knees in Auschwitz, of Anwar Sadat visiting the Knesset, of Vaclav Havel asking forgiveness of Czechoslovakia's former German population and of Nelson Mandela donning a Springbok rugby jersey. In each case, a leader opened up new possibilities by taking a personal risk that invited a free response, rather than trying to legislate a new, politically-correct orthodoxy.

Beyond doubt, the Belfast agreement represents an attempt to replace conflict with something else. In this minimal sense, it is an experiment in political stability and clearly presumes a new political relationship. At the heart of the agreement is proclaimed the aim of reconciliation and the establishment of a new, fully legitimate political order. Formally at least, Northern Ireland is embarked on a journey away from the limited notion of peace, as absence of war, towards a peace rooted in relationships. No matter what the claims of political realists, therefore, politics must engage with the question of forgiveness and reconciliation if the agreement is to represent more than a staging-post in the cycle of revenge.

Of course, the roots of the agreement are in cold political calculation. The unspoken dynamic was a new realism within republicanism and elements of unionism about the emerging international, especially British-Irish, consensus on the way ahead. In spite of its early rejection, both republicanism and Ulster Unionism were pincered by the Anglo-Irish process which they had rejected so vehemently in 1985: contrast the formal party positions then with the institutional substance of the agreement in 1998.

At the same time, the British-Irish process, supported vocally by the international community in the shape of Bill Clinton and Jacques Delors, presupposed something more than ceasefires. The move from ceasefires to agreement was the adoption by parties in Northern Ireland of the principle that peace is more than the absence of war.

In constitutional terms, the agreement presumes that nationalists agree to work a still-British Northern Ireland on condition that it is, so to speak, a 'second republic' - constitutionally and institutionally transformed from the previous dispensation. This clearly presupposes entirely new relationships in Northern Ireland, in which a new legitimacy replaces an old one, reasons for violence disappear, accounts are reconciled and political debts are forgiven. So if the roots of the agreement were in Realpolitik, the plant can nevertheless only bear fruit if it is watered by a new political relationship in which the past ceases (at least over time) to be an obstacle.

But just to speak in such a language draws attention to the limits of the agreement. At the time of its promulgation, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party had had no bilateral meetings with the leader of the party which was the biggest obstacle to his voters, Sinn Féin. Moreover, as time has passed, it has become clear that the new beginning affects only those things over which there is an unambiguous interpretation. There is a new government, but as yet no new relationship allowing generosity of spirit on unresolved questions.

In spite of the oft-repeated principle established by the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, that 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed', it is clear that this line-drawing, reconciling-of-accounts principle was not realised in the agreement. Indeed, part of the problem is an unrealistic expectation that the agreement represents an arrival at reconciliation, when it is nothing of the sort.

In addition, although the agreement presumes a new legitimacy for the consequent institutions, it appears that this is only partial. As Adrian Guelke has pointed out, it represents a recognition of different aspirations - not a full acknowledgement of legitimacy. Thus, the republican movement believes that it has made a pragmatic compromise with the 'six-county state' while withholding legitimacy from partition. Unionists, on the other hand, expect that the sovereignty of the UK in all matters not specifically regulated by the agreement will be absolute.

Finally, the new governmental system has yet to achieve its necessary monopoly of legitimate force. In the first instance, the fact that justice and policing remain Westminster matters reflects the inability of unionists and nationalists to construct a mature government for Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the refusal by paramilitaries to decommission is grounded in unwillingness to invest the organs of state with legitimacy.

Just as the great political motivation for conflict in Ireland - the border and its future - has apparently been resolved, we find that our real difficulty is accepting as partners those we have not forgiven and cannot forgive. At best, we are operating in the realms of 'forgiven, not forgotten' - meaning that we go on with each other but may easily return to the injury and guilt which has shaped our history. At worst, even those who are committed to working the agreement are vulnerable to a remembering or revitalisation of injuries past, leaving the door open to a return to the politics of the last atrocity committed by the overtly unreconciled wings of our 'imagined communities'.

Progress in the quality of peace in Northern Ireland is thus inextricably tied up with something over which politics has no power: our ability to ask for and grant forgiveness to one another. Problematically, the agreement is formally constructed on the principle that we can avoid doing either, even though it cannot survive without both. This paradox is clearest in the agreement's silence about our past responsibilities to and for one another. Not only is there no 'war guilt' clause; there was apparently no guilt.

'The idea of a shared truth: I have no idea what it means, what a shared understanding could be, what a common history could be. I have no idea what any of those terms mean but I have a vision for the future. And the vision I have is to be able to live alongside other people without necessarily understanding them, but knowing that in them are a lot of things that I recognise in myself and how do we work that out?'

In the absence of a clear victor, the agreement was probably only possible because it drew a discreet veil over questions of responsibility and guilt. In an ideal world, this might provide the political cover for people, quietly but definitively, to leave their past behind. Meanwhile, in the real world everyone is left to maintain their own innocence, while nobody is released from the accusation of guilt by their opponents. Thus unionists can countenance nothing which recognises any responsibility for violence in the political structures of Northern Ireland, while SF continues to insist that these lie at the core of the problem. Republicans and loyalists see no requirement for serious apology to those left suffering and unionists insist that paramilitaries have sole responsibility for violence.

While there are still debates about decommissioning and policing, neither side can quite let go of accusing the other of being up to their old tricks. And - who knows? - they may both be!

The programme for the early release of prisoners was a perfect instance of this problem. On the one hand, prisoners were released early, without any need to express remorse. Indeed, all organisations involved refuse any of the normal trappings of 'ex-offenders'. On the other hand, prisoners are not released from the legal pronouncement of guilt, carrying their licences with them some to the end of their days. While one can understand and even admire the political ingenuity of the solution, such compromises embody the hole at the centre of the agreement: everyone is left innocent in their own terms, while remaining guilty in the eyes of their opponents. We have nowhere to acknowledge that our relationships remain clouded by our experiences and perceptions of injustice and injury.

In a conflict which has claimed nearly 4,000 lives, traumatised tens of thousands more and determined the residence, marriage and profession of hundreds of thousands further, it is always the unknowable others who are responsible. There is no 'I' or 'we' who asks forgiveness. Official ideology hardly dares to locate any responsibility, and each side goes on giving every appearance of continuing to pin blame overwhelmingly on the 'other' while fiercely resisting any notion of co-responsibility.

Yet the evidence suggests that a political system failed to cherish all its children equally, a state found itself cutting corners off justice, a self-styled 'non-sectarian' ideology terrorised anyone who called themselves British and the Protestant working class colluded with death squads prepared to kill any Catholic. It is hardly surprising that victims groups are the fodder for every party seeking to undermine the agreement.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the result of forgiving. They are characterised by the transformation of a relationship, so that previous injuries no longer block our relationships and lives. Memory, where it goes on, becomes a matter of humility and warning not a weapon with which to destroy the other. But everything depends on the existentially critical decision to forgive, and a willingness to acknowledge responsibility or to be forgiven. There are already many instances of this in personal lives, but all the core political organisations continue to demand their 'just us' (in the phrase of the writer Robert McLiam Wilson), at any cost to the present or the future.

Without a real willingness to accept each other into political life, all talk of reconciliation runs the risk of sentimentality while the injuries of the past sustain their dynamic but formally unexpressed poison. The gamble of the agreement is that time and 'confidence-building measures' will create the space for real changes to come to pass quietly and without humiliation. There is a fear that any process of truth-telling will snowball into a litany of charge and counter-charge, in which the whole 'peace process' will come tumbling down in a sea of recrimination. The alternative possibility is that without facing our need to forgive and be forgiven, reconciliation remains unattainable - even in its limited political sense.

So I say to you my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice (King, 1968: 17).

The absence of war, however relative, creates an environment in which dreams become thinkable. And the establishment of political structures, even imperfect, which draw people into new and unexplored relationships should not be dismissed. The successful defusing of the constitution in the agreement, as a reason for violence, is a huge achievement. But it is also necessary to be honest about the limits of what has been achieved in terms of relationships.

Political leadership needs to demonstrate, and reiterate, a vision of the agreement which promises and delivers a place for everyone. At one level, this is a simple matter of good governance and coalition co-operation. But it must, sometimes, include the visionary, which leads beyond a current impasse into something worth striving for. Much of this is already present in the seldom-remembered preamble to the agreement.

The genius of Martin Luther King's 'dream' speech was to articulate a vision, to acknowledge current reality and to embody that dream within human relationships rather than specific political formulae. This was a compelling dream, not a utopia to be imposed: it called both oppressor and oppressed into a new future.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the sine qua non of any peace that moves beyond the absence of war. In politics, their presence can be evidenced by increasingly secure arrangements covering a widening range of subjects. Reconciliation cannot be legislated, however; in its absence it can only be modelled and imitated, by people who take decisions and translate those decisions into their political, social and personal lives. In times such as these, leadership in Northern Ireland, at whatever level, means little more than fulfilling this task and exploring the consequences.

'To me there is always the notion of scapegoating that goes on when we talk about the issue of victims and forgiveness and reconciliation ... The question is: whom do we forgive and where do we start? Do we forgive perpetrators, politicians, government, security forces, the silent middle class, churches, etc?'

Some of those consequences may be extremely dangerous and unpopular with previous friends. The absence of legislative support makes any decision to forgive, or to accept forgiveness, a risk which can only be reduced by the manner in which one responds to these decisions and by one's capacity to recognise the risks in small and seemingly insignificant changes. Even where we recognise the need for great changes, transition can be hell at times.

We commit all sorts of injustices at every step without the slightest intention. Every minute we are the cause of someone's unhappiness (Rankin, 1999: 5).

There cannot be reconciliation unless ideologies of communal victimhood - which portray every act of 'ours' as an act of defence and every act of 'theirs' as an act of aggression - give way to a recognition of the injury 'we' have also done. In a spiral, we are victims not only of the last act of violence, but of the one which 'provoked' it (and the one before that and the one before that). Inevitably, 'we' are victims not only of 'their' violence but of 'our' violence to 'them'. Unless we can find our way to this recognition we cannot take real responsibility for the suffering, except as 'do-gooders'. Allied to this are the responsibilities of political leadership: forgiveness and reconciliation in action must be supported by those in authority or forever run the risk of being ridiculed.

Taking responsibility also means that politicians, including those in Britain and the republic as well as moral and community leaders need to articulate their responsibility in failing to bring an end to violence. Clearly, paramilitary groups must come to terms with their own activities and injuries. But this will be impossible unless their personal and group responsibilities are contextualised within a wider acknowledged failure. To be guilty among the also guilty is one thing, to be guilty among the innocent quite another.

In practical terms, this means a formal acknowledgment that the material needs of those who suffered directly must be met by the public purse as a symbol of our responsibility as a society. This responsibility-taking by the community, in all its parts, means we can begin to memorialise the dead of the 'troubles' as a reminder from history about our relationships, within which we all played our inglorious part. 'Honouring the dead' might then become a decision to sacrifice no more on the altar of self-righteousness and 'betrayal of the dead' might come to be understood as the creation of ever more victims.

If we speak too easily of forgiveness, it is usually because we have no sense of the scale of the injustice that is being forgiven. There is a legitimate fear that forgiveness is a political strategy of denial, which forcibly pushes away the demands for equity of victims and survivors. What we are concerned with here is something quite different: what makes it possible for people to forgive and be forgiven, so that they are restored to 'life'? As such, it has nothing to do with law but with a relationship which might even co-exist with continuing punishment.

The justice of forgiveness is 'restorative'. This certainly means that things stolen must be returned where possible, that a debt to society is repaid in a variety of manners or responsibility is acknowledged into the future. Again, restorative justice can only really begin when perpetrators accept their responsibility. But once a relationship is established, justice is 'matter-of-fact' and not about revenge. It can even be undertaken freely by the perpetrator. This is true in relationships between communities and groups as well as between individuals.

Once again, leadership will be crucial to make such theories real. In political terms, this means a long process where those associated with the injuries caused by political groups to which they have allegiance acknowledge the cost of their politics to others. Other agencies, such as churches, might be encouraged to examine their relationships to one another and their treatment of each other's members in this regard.

For long, we have associated forgiveness with the duty of the bereaved. And, indeed, many have behaved remarkably. Gordon Wilson is, of course, well-known but there have been many others like him. Without their examples we probably would not believe that forgiveness was even thinkable.

But if I have one plea it is this: stop crucifying the injured with this cruel demand. The critical question is asked of all the rest of us. If those who suffered most did so as victims of our relationships, then can we ask to be forgiven? By forcing those bereaved or injured into the decisive position, we destroy the weakest again and hide our own unwillingness to act in their despair.

In political terms, there is much to do. Clearly, the agreement did not address the emotional relationships surrounding the use of violence, as illustrated by the disastrous divisions over decommissioning and the Patten report on policing. While both are apparently genuine security issues, there is a sense that the real problem with decommissioning is acceptance that the entire military strategy was misguided, while unionist objections to Patten are about an unwillingness to acknowledge the participation of unionist institutions as 'cause' in this conflict.

A police force in which nationalists do not recognise themselves is not worth having. On the other hand, the serious concerns of those facing paramilitary attack cannot be dismissed as 'red herrings' - in a context where hundreds of families have to flee as soon as a dispute breaks out between paramilitaries, or mortar bombs are fired on police stations. Political reconciliation means the primacy of a search for a state which might eventually enjoy its Weberian monopoly of force - no matter how imperfectly such a search proceeds. The primary contribution of politics to peace in Northern Ireland is a credible reduction in the room for manoeuvre of the cycle of violence.

Social policy in this domain needs to avoid any idea that it is aimed at forcing people to forgive who have good reasons not to. Nonetheless, there is a responsibility to ensure that measures are taken to build relationships which can prevent the crises that have given rise to the present suffering. This does not only mean giving money to the latest emergency situation, although that may be important. It means building structures and practices in institutions and organisations which embed the principles of equity, diversity and interdependence in everyday experience.

Telling our truth about our experiences is only useful to society if it is a mechanism for healing rather than destruction. Traditional liberal politics is extremely nervous of anything that promises more than it can deliver, preferring instead to provide minimum equity and to demand tolerance. There are good reasons for heeding this intuition - not least the extreme difficulty of creating reconciliation out of pain forgiven not by the victim but by the state. As it stands, most of the ideas for a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland represent demands for truth from others rather than a supply from 'our' side. Unsurprisingly, there are few takers for this proposition among those who were militarily active.

Paradoxically, each of us can only expect a public forum for truth-telling if we accept and acknowledge that many of the stories will highlight things done in our defence and in the name of sacred causes that ended in bloody murder. If we can really accept that, while telling of our own injuries, then we will have accomplished much of the reconciliation the whole process seeks.

A patient has not necessarily recovered because his most obvious wounds have healed (Ziegler, 1969: 60).

Much of this is disturbingly distant from reality. There is no human society in which forgiveness is complete and reconciliation final. But in a small place like Northern Ireland, where a common future depends on our capacity to grow into some kind of open working relationship with one another, it is indispensable for stability. A justice which forces us to submit to one another, as 'goodies and baddies', is as unenforceable as it is undesirable.

Reconciliation is ahead of us, not behind - even if for many people it is already a reality. It is there in the small but enormous acts of forgiving and the political acts of working together. But it will not be complete until the even bigger task, of accepting our need to be forgiven for what 'our' side caused, has ceased to be the truth which dare not speak its name.


Arnold, J C (1999), Seeking Peace, Robertsbridge: Plough Publications

Dryden, J (1688), The Conquest of Grenada

King, M L Jr (1968), 'I have a dream', speech delivered in Washington DC on August 28th 1963, reprinted in Negro History Bulletin 21, May

Meiring, P (2000), 'The Baruti v the lawyers', in C Villa-Vicencio & W Verwoerd (eds), Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Cape Town: UCT Press/London & Zed Books

Rankin, I (1999), Dead Souls, London: Orion

Weber, M (1970), 'Politics as a vocation', In H H Gerth and C Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber, London: MacMillan

Wright, F (1987), Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis, Dublin: Gill & MacMillan

Ziegler, P (1969), The Black Death, London: Penguin Books


Brian Lennon

I would like to start by adopting Duncan's own warning: that I will not do harm to victims by my words. As someone who has suffered comparatively little in the 'troubles' I am deeply aware of our capacity for such harm. There is an enormous amount in his chapter that is rich and challenging, and it helps to clarify our thinking in this area. Clarity is vital because without it we can all the more easily dump our responsibilities on to others.

Some points I would agree with are:

  • we speak of forgiveness too easily;
  • while the decision to forgive belongs to the injured, there is also a task facing the rest of us who suffer as part of a community, particularly where so many of the murders were of individuals chosen because they represented a community;
  • politicians, if they are to lead, need to bear in mind what their constituency can bear both acts of contrition and forgiveness can open space for others to follow;
  • both unionists and nationalists were pincered by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, in which the governments explicitly changed their relationship with each other and thereby set in motion changes in the relationships within Northern Ireland;
  • while political leadership needs to show that the Belfast agreement can operate at a practical level, there is a need for 'the visionary' which leads beyond the current impasse;
  • restorative justice can only begin when perpetrators accept their responsibility, and it has to do with a relationship which might even co-exist with continuing punishment; and, above all,
  • we must stop 'crucifying the injured' with the cruel demand to forgive.

Having said that, for me reconciliation is a complex process, made up of at least the following elements: forgiveness, repentance, justice and truth.

Duncan uses the term 'forgiveness' for two quite different things. One is an act - and it is an act - which only the victim can perform (though we can speak of secondary victims in the wider community who suffer from atrocities committed against people they do not know). A second reference is to the gift that the perpetrator receives.

For me, forgiveness is first and foremost something the victim does. I prefer to use 'repentance' for the tasks the perpetrator needs to carry out. The problem with using 'forgiveness' to cover both is that it is easy for a victim to be confused into thinking one is making demands on him or her - when in fact one may be making demands on the perpetrator. Using a different term, such as repentance, reduces the possibility of confusing the tasks facing the victim with those facing the perpetrator.

There is a second reason for this. People often confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. Understanding forgiveness as (a) something that victims are called to do whenever and however they can, and (b) something that the perpetrator receives may lead to the conclusion that if both occur we have reconciliation. Yet perpetrators need to do far more than receive forgiveness for reconciliation to exist.

They need to admit the specific wrong they have done. They need to take full responsibility for it, as Duncan stresses. They need to apologise for it and that is different from merely 'regretting' it. They need to make restitution. And they may need to ask for forgiveness: whether the perpetrator should do so is a judgement about how this will affect the victim and how he or she will receive it. Sometimes it is not appropriate to ask for forgiveness, because of the negative impact it would have - and the victim's needs have to be given priority at this point.

A second issue is the extent to which we need reconciliation. This, as Duncan points out, can be seen as a difference of emphasis between the political realists and - at least in South Africa - the priests, like Archbishop Tutu. Despite my vocation I find myself, though not totally, siding with the realists, taking their points very seriously and being cautious about the ambitions of the 'priests'.

'Justice is hugely controversial in Northern Ireland, because whatever side of the fence you're sitting on you will have your opinion of justice. It's very painful and it's very hard to watch, but it has to be faced and I believe that victims in Northern Ireland want to face it. I believe some perpetrators want to face it as well, and have made some steps to face the truth and start again ...'

In the South African case, in practice too much emphasis was put on the task of victims to forgive, and too little on the task of repentance. One might not like the religious connotations of the term 'repentance', but I have yet to find a word that includes as many of the challenges facing perpetrators which may be a comment on the difficulty secular society has in facing up to the need for repentance. As Duncan points out, secular courts do not deal with the issue. Nor did the South African TRC, at least directly. For good reasons, amnesty did not depend on the willingness of perpetrators to repent.

In our context we do not agree about our past, our present or our future. Again, Duncan usefully highlights that a strength of the agreement is that it allows all parties to hold on to their different versions of history. And this may work; only time will tell. It is worth noting the experience of the south in this respect.

After the civil war of 1921-23 there was very little repentance or offer of forgiveness. There was precious little justice and not much truth. Yet the south survived. That survival is perhaps taken for granted too easily. In the context of the time it could have collapsed as a state any time up to the end of 1945. But one of the mechanisms it used to survive was to freeze each of the civil-war sides into a political bloc with no reconciliation.

What finally began to unfreeze the bloc was the advent of the pragmatists in the mid-60s, who were willing to move away from the civil-war rhetoric. The fact that this did not happen until then is instructive: time allowed space for the thaw to develop. It may be that because we are now in a much faster-changing world we do not need the same amount of time but I would be cautious about such a conclusion.

I would dearly want to see repentance, justice, truth - and in so far as victims can stumble their way on that awful journey - forgiveness. I do not like living in a society where so much wrong goes unrepented. But at the formal political level, and at other levels of our society, we may have to put up with considerably less. That may be sufficient for us to buy the 50 years we need to allow the past to be somewhat more past than it is.

Duncan's statement that 'our real political difficulty is accepting as partners those who we have not forgiven and cannot forgive' is a more accurate statement about unionists than nationalists. For many unionists their problem is working in government with Sinn Féin, in the absence of any republican confession or apology. The issue for nationalists is different: they need assurance that the institutions of the state will reflect their 'Irishness' and that they will be administered fairly.

Beyond that there is another issue: resentment. The key task for the Catholic community is to let go of resentment. That is not quite the same as forgiveness: forgiveness should be concerned with actual wrongs, not merely perceived wrongs. I am not suggesting that the Catholic community suffers only from perceived wrongs, but to get rid of resentment we have to be able to specify what the wrong was, who committed it, and what they owe us to get rid of it.

Duncan frequently alludes to the connection between letting go of debts and forgiveness. This is the emphasis present in the gospels: 'Forgive us our trespasses' reads in some versions 'Forgive us our debts'. But before one can forgive debts one has to specify what they are. Then either the debtor gives what they owe or one cancels the debt. Either way, both know where they stand. Resentment can often be about wrongs that are unspecified or where the perpetrator is unspecified. For instance, when nationalists say the British did us harm, which British are we talking about, and what is the harm they did? And when? What would it take to undo that harm? Or is it - and this is very often the case - impossible to undo it?

It may be that what the Catholic community really wants is acknowledgment of the wrongs done against it by the state, by unionists and by loyalists. But if this is so, then a parallel task arises for nationalists: to recognise the wrongs they have done against the state and unionists. Not a vague, general recognition that wrong happens in 'wars' but a specific acknowledgment that specific acts were wrong. If we need a Bloody Sunday inquiry to recognise that the Derry murders were wrong, we need the same about Kingsmills and Enniskillen - and, I would argue, about the whole republican 'armed struggle' as well as instances of Catholic sectarianism.

Is, then, the Catholic task more to deal with resentment and that for Protestants more to deal with offering forgiveness in the absence of repentance? And what is the difference between these two tasks?

If one accepts that reconciliation is made up of the four elements of forgiveness, repentance, justice and truth, then a final question arises. Is reconciliation the most appropriate thing for us to be seeking in politics? Or should we be looking for something less ambitious, such as 'political healing' or 'a way to live in modest peace for the future'? In Northern Ireland today, each would be ambition enough.

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