This is part of a series of Guest Bloggers who reflect on 'Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland'
By: Prof Peter Shirlow (Deputy Director of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice - QUB)
Past problems such as victimhood and injury are never really in any past. They are reproduced through sorrow, loss, anger and ultimately grief. However, reacting to the past is never universal. Some who lost loved ones can move on better than others. Even within families that endured the bitterness of violence they are variant expectations and beliefs.
For some the capacity to move onward is blunted by not trusting the future. For sections of the unionist community a destabilising past of mayhem and the depth of hurt have not been paralleled by a sense of a future of inclusion and fairness. Seeing as they do a victimhood in which they are unheard, misinterpreted and unnerved by what they view as a process of victim recognition that is unequally treated.
Yet some sections of unionism have tried to resolve the past in ways that seek inclusivity with the ‘other’ and that has included what the poet Michael Longley described as getting ‘down on my knees and do what must be done. And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
A fundamental problem with dealing with the past is that there is no architecture capable of envisioning an end. The legal and political response is a litter of approaches and ideas. We have had inquiry into state violence, an HET process that has punished some and led to others having no faith in it. Royal prerogatives of mercy have been handed put with no information on to whom or why. We have the near daily anger of politicians who play out a proxy war of collusion versus terrorism. Such public displays of anger probably undermine the recovery of some who are stuck in a form of anguish in which they feel that their sorrows are used for political ends.
There is a camouflaging of truth and a failure to realise that the plague is not on one but many houses. Within a landscape of punishment and noise we hear too little about the impact of conflict upon individuals and also the work of those who silently make amends or show grace. In addition, we have a younger population who feel less inclined to engage in an older generation that seems to remain bitter and in which the casting of bitterness was before their time. Think of a reality that around a quarter of men now aged 55-65 may have been in the security forces or paramilitaries. Think also of a society that has done too little to aid survivors with physical and emotional needs. Attention about the past framed by the past instead of a societal renewal in which we create a common bond regarding healing and help.
A fundamental problem for many unionists is that the brightest light has been shone on the security forces. Most within unionism understand the security forces as their defenders and protectors and also as their fathers, mothers, cousins and children. The ability to examine the state is much easier as there are records of membership and logs that tell us who was where and when. This is not the case for the paramilitaries who worked in near complete secretly. For these unionists such light shining does not create an equality of treatment or introspection. It is, for them, an act of silencing their suffering and fears and undermining an examination of the violence they endured.
Ironically, republicans call for a truth and reconciliation process but most unionist leaders sensing potential amnesties reject such an approach. Their cause is punishment which is unlikely given decommissioning, lost records and that few will offer up the truth for fear of being imprisoned. Ultimately, without an appropriate architecture truth will remain obscured and the proxy war continues.
I think it is now time for unionists to evaluate the process of punishment and the failure to deal with the past through legal mechanisms. Those who are opposed should now begin to negotiate for truth based inquiries. As difficult as that will be for some that is the only way that they will get close to finding some form of an end. Without that re-negotiation of that position they will remain largely silenced and rarely see many brought before the courts.
For too long too many unionists have baulked at transitional mechanisms and allowed ideas on the future to be determined by others. Unionists need to embolden themselves and adopt a greater vocabulary for inclusive dialogue and negotiation. They must skill themselves up in the language of equality and inclusiveness and in so doing present themselves as those who will break down the bitter divide. So doing will not undermine their identity or mean that they have adopted the logic of the ‘other’.
As a community, one in which I am a member, there has always been too much of a status quo attitude that seeks leadership from above. Unionism needs to renew itself around the victims issue and shift from a position of being vulnerable and misunderstood. Qualities and emotions or respect and tolerance are firmly located within the unionist community but too often such merit is hidden from the outside world.
Invoking principles of free expression and liberty will be served within a unionist approach to truth and reconciliation. It will engender hope and a new place for us all. It will restore respect for the dead and injured. The punishment desires of some are understandable but will not be properly fulfilled and there is a need to recognise that and locate those emotions somewhere that means we live less backwards and think more forward.
Truth seeking should be liberating and never feared. Unionists should grasp the nettle of the past with both hands.