Not a cosy conversation: Victims and survivors conference
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
25 February 2014
The Commission for Victims and Survivors (CVS) convened a conference “to listen to as many voices as possible” in forming its advice to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the CVS Commissioner Kathryn Stone explained.
The event was well attended by a couple hundred delegates, representing the broad spectrum from Northern Ireland’s Troubles; but remarkably absent were politicians.
Commissioner Stone quoted the Haass-O’Sullivan published draft document, in regards to the leadership role demonstrated to date by Northern Ireland’s victims and survivors:
“In many cases, victims have become prominent voices in the effort to heal divisions across communities — an extraordinary example of leadership from which all in Northern Ireland could learn.”
Reverend Dr Lesley Carroll introduced two members of the CVS Forum, Peter Heathwood and Erroll McDowell.
Mr Heathwood described how he was shot by Loyalists in 1979, in front of his wife and children. His father died of a heart attack upon seeing him in a body bag (presumed dead).
He described his participation in the CVS Forum as: “We listen to each other as human beings. Common to all of us is that we have been on the receiving end of violence.”
His goal is to have a bottom-up roadmap for Dealing with the Past: “How could politicians not implement such a roadmap?” And for him this would give real meaning to the shared future agenda.
Errol McDowell described his 32 years’ experience as a police officer “dealing with terrorist incidents”, witnessing gun attacks upon him and immediate death of others. This also included having the man who fired at him telling him so.
He described the CVS Forum’s work as difficult, emotional at times: “But the tears are the same.” For him outcomes include lessons such as violence is futile, the rule of law is the basis of progress, and all victims are equal: “Most importantly, we must ensure that it does not happen again.”
Rev. Carroll discussed some of the current difficulties in the work of dealing with the past, including agreeing a definition of a victim, particular language used by different groups, and the fact that Northern Ireland society may just not be ready to construct a singular narrative of its conflict experience.
In regards to the CVS Forum’s work, she said, “There is law. There is politics. We decided to be humans first. There is too much legalism and political wrangling — real people get forgotten.”
“It says, ‘It should not happen again’. But our peace is too fragile. We need to transform so it says ‘It will not happen again’,” Rev. Carroll added.
Mr Richard Irwin, an official from OFMdFM, remarked that attending this conference “was a good reminder of why we do what we do in government”.
What was notable was that OFMdFM did not agree to send one of its Ministers or Junior Ministers; Jennifer McCann was in attendance, but in a legislative (MLA) not executive (OFMdFM Junior Minister) capacity.
Professor Kieran McEvoy (School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast) gave a thorough overview of the published Haass-O’Sullivan document.
Why wasn’t dealing with the past part of the Multi-Party Talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement? Simply, Prof. McEvoy explained, because those negotiations were difficult enough without this contentious issue.
The result has been a piecemeal approach, in which he identified three efforts to pull it together:
- Healing through Remembering (2006)
- Consultative Group on the Past (2009)
- Haass-O’Sullivan Negotiations (2013)
He described the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations as an attempt by Northern Ireland politicians to take direct responsibility for dealing with the past. Prof. McEvoy saw this as positive, noting also the relative absence of the British and Irish Government involvement.
Prof. McEvoy concluded that the Haass-O’Sullivan paper is a serious piece of work: “It recognises across the political spectrum that we need to do something collectively about the past.” He also learned the same response among those he has spoken to within the Department of Justice. There is a consensus to act.
Two workshop sessions followed, divided by four topics:
These were summarised by two guest observers, Brian Rowan and Susan McKay, in a conversation facilitated by Kate Turner (Healing through Remembering).
Brian Rowan began by saying that every time we have this conversation about dealing with the past, we walk on eggshells. He said, “Don’t take this process for granted. That people can come into a room such as this, in a non-confrontational way, is significant.” He described this as a constructive conversation, one which may become building blocks for further progress.
Susan McKay made a point that while it is good that government officials welcome the contribution that victims and survivors are making to the discussion, victims and survivors should not be expected to solve the problems; political leadership is required.
Speaking to the workshop topic of justice, Ms McKay reported back the points that justice can disappoint (you may not get the verdict that you desire, as well as the one you want may not satisfy your pain). She also highlighted the trans-generational nature of dealing with the past, and not making seeking justice too much a burden upon the next generation (i.e. at the expense of raising families).
Brian Rowan, on speaking to the workshop topic of truth, appreciated how painful and emotional this topic is, as it is in the present tense for many. He reported back points about the need for confidence in any process, including its principles and values, which will require its own adequate preparation process. Mr Rowan thought that this was the problem with both the Eames-Bradley process as well as the December 2013 remarks by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland (when he called for ‘drawing a line’ in regards to pursuing public prosecutions for legacy events). Mr Rowan concluded, “We’re not quite ready for a truth process, because (a) we don’t know what truth means and (b) what will a truth process deliver.” He anyway preferred to call it an ‘information’ process, and underlined the need to manage expectations.
On the workshop topic of reparations, Susan McKay said that she learned that it meant more than financial compensation — it includes memorialisation, education, respect. Indeed, it was important to her to educate the current generation on why there are people about them damaged by the Troubles. Brian Rowan concurred with this, in that he was concerned about how some young people use the language of the Troubles, something they don’t have any direct experience of.
In regards to the workshop topic of acknowledgement, Mr Rowan said that there are gaps in provision of services for victims and survivors, but one gap that is closing is the ability for all to come together in an environment such as this conference: “a form of acknowledgement in itself”.
Brian Rowan expanded on the role of the media and its responsibility during the conflict. He admitted that in remembering headline events, one forgets the people affected: “The media needs to understand that there is much that they are forgetting.” Mr Rowan felt that an archive for everyone’s story would make a huge contribution to a better understanding.
Susan McKay added that sometimes journalists’ role in dealing with the past can be superficial: “Editors may not think some stories are now worth covering.” But she credited those in the CVS Forum for having “stuck with the hard, long slog” of difficult conversations. She concluded that there is not a cosy outcome from today’s proceedings.
Then Mr Rowan said that this conversation needs to continue. Furthermore, politicians need to get more involved, and not to use this as a political football.
Here, Ms McKay suggested that in order to recognise the truth in what others say, Unionists should spend time with Palestinians, and Nationalists with Israelis!
Ms McKay’s final remark was that there is still ugly stuff to come out.
Indeed, those words rand loudly in my ears on my return home, when the top news story of the day was how John Downey, accused of four murders in an IRA bombing at Hyde Park, will not be prosecuted because he received a previous guarantee he would not be taken to court.
As today’s conference showed, there are many forms of acknowledgement, truth, justice and reparations. Let’s hope the constructive conversations can endure invariable ugly stuff.