This is another in our series on 'Dealing with the Past', written by guest contributors and designed to encourage constructive reflection - this article is written by Andy Pollak (formerly Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and Irish Times journalist)
I should start by saying that I am not a typical Northern Irish Protestant. I was born a Presbyterian in County Antrim, grew up largely in England and have lived in Dublin – happy to be an Irish citizen – for much of the past 30 years. I am a member of the Dublin Unitarian Church, and therefore on the most liberal, deist wing of Protestantism (to the extent that many Trinitarian Protestants do not even recognise us as Christians!). I still have a lot to do with Northern Ireland. I worked as a journalist in Belfast for many years in the 1970s and 1980s and for 14 years, up to 2013, ran the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh, which researches and develops practical cooperation between the North and the Republic.
I cannot speak for those who have lost loved ones or suffered personal pain during the Northern Ireland 'Troubles'. They have a huge burden to carry and huge trauma to overcome that I can barely imagine. When I hear of the reign of murder and terror many Protestants along the border endured at the hands of the IRA and INLA for nearly 30 years, I feel humbled and shaken in my safe liberalism. Anything I write here is meant in no way to discount their anguish.
However I believe that we in Northern Ireland have to change our mindsets so that we think more generously about the past and more imaginatively about the future. I listened to an inspirational address by President Michael D. Higgins at a Glencree Reconciliation Centre event last weekend (27 June), in which he said that Irish people, north and south, have to be brave enough to imagine a future that is “released from the burdens of distorted past memories, and seemingly insurmountable present difficulties”, so that the energy is found for constructing “an empowering ethics of memory.”
The core of that “empowering ethics” is forgiveness. He said that while terrible acts cannot, for the most moral of reasons, be forgotten, we need to prevent the tragic memory of those acts from “colonising the future.” I believe the danger of the terrible acts of 30 years of conflict in the North (on all sides) being allowed to colonise our future, thus preventing us coming together to build a more harmonious society, remains a very real one 17 years on from the end of major violence. It would not be the first time that the North, mired in past hurts and grievances, has failed to move on to tackle the more pressing and contemporary problems facing the rest of the world.
President Higgins said this empowering ethic must involve a “softening of hearts” so that we learn to recognise that our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities can only be assuaged by actions of mutual forgiveness and generosity. This is the kind of action of huge (and for many people often impossible) generosity that Michael Longley described in his famous poem, Ceasefire:
I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.
Hannah Arendt, who wrote so powerfully about the terror regimes of Nazism and Stalinism, concluded: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.”
“While to ignore the past would be a betrayal of those who lost their lives and of those whose lives have been blighted by the loss or serious injury of their loved ones, we must also ensure our remembered past is not allowed to overshadow and define the issues of moral significance in either the present or in the future to which we aspire,” said President Higgins.
The Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney, has recently called for a public “common acknowledgement from all sides of the pain caused by and to each other.” He said this could “powerfully contribute to forgiveness and healing. Doing so would require grace and generosity from all sides.” We need to take such calls seriously, whatever their provenance.
Dealing with the legacy of our past in Ireland is an enormously complex task, but it is one that has the potential to transform (in the most positive sense) the relationships between and across the peoples of these islands, and how we relate to our often shared and overlapping histories. Generous gestures of mutal respect and acknowledgement of common suffering and injustice by leaders as different as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, David Cameron, Ian Paisley, Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Martin McGuinness have shown us the way forward. We are in a good place in Ireland in 2015, a place that people in Bosnia, Ukraine and Syria would praise God or Allah to be in. It is a place where mutual forgiveness and understanding can begin to make a difference to the future of the island that we share and love.
At a banquet in Windsor Castle last year during his state visit to Britain, President Higgins said:
“We owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, the duty to build together in peace; it is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them.” A new society in Northern Ireland built on social justice and personal forgiveness to those who have cruelly harmed us – that is the extremely difficult combination we must aspire to.