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.
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.