Reconciliation is an essential process for conflict transformation. It is about building relationships, with the focus on emotional and psychological aspects of conflict.

Reconciliation encompasses different challenges, such as the notion of truth, mercy and justice. And seeking truth about the past can generate tensions. In the case of Northern Ireland, the narrative can be different (or perceived as such), depending upon the community affected.

Projects or actions encouraging the truth about the past can thus be difficult to realise, since different communities will struggle to agree a shared narrative.

Reconciliation is a complex process involving healing as well as encouraging peace and opportunities for all, while also implementing mechanisms for justice.

A reconciliation process has to address controversial and sensitive issues that would not be seen as such in other more settled societies. For example, the notion of victim and perpetrator is more challenging, since a perpetrator can — in the context of a deeply divided society — also be a victim.

Laura Fowler Graham explains this, along with the contentious notion of innocence.

This lack of agreement on basic notions makes the pursuit of justice more difficult.

Reconciliation is connected with a bigger and necessary project: dealing with the past. Yet this issue has been left aside in the politics of Northern Ireland. Though it is worth bearing in mind that the end of violence conflict is recent, and it can be very difficult to deal with a past that is very present for many Northern Irish people.

The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 can be seen as an historical step. But the idea of dealing with the past is absent from it, mostly in order to ease the negotiations that were already complicated enough.

Professor Kieran McEvoy (School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast), at a conference in early 2014 hosted by the Commission for Victims and Survivors, explained that as a result, the issue of dealing with the past has been done so in a piecemeal approach. He identified three significant attempts to date:

  1. Healing through Remembering (2006)
  2. Consultative Group on the Past (2009)
  3. Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations (2013)

Healing through Remembering

The Healing through Remembering project was inspired by the visits of Dr Alex Boraine, of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in February 1999 and March 2000. He met groups and individuals in Northern Ireland, and tried to identify any bearing they may have on the conflict. In parallel, a small group was formed, and it produced a report, “All Truth is Bitter”. A consensus emerged from this report: the need for parameters within which the people of Northern Ireland would have an opportunity to establish a mechanism to identify their own truth, a common narrative.

The Healing through Remembering report was launched in June 2002, with six recommendations:

  1. network of commemoration and remembering projects
  2. Day of Reconciliation
  3. collective storytelling and archiving process
  4. permanent living memorial museum
  5. acknowledgement
  6. Healing through Remembering initiative

This led to the establishment of five sub-groups, which published several reports in 2006 and 2007. An important one is “Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland”, produced by the Truth Recovery and Acknowledgement sub-group.

Consultative Group on the Past

The second major attempt was the Consultative Group on the Past. This independent group was established in 2006, in order to seek views across the community in Northern Ireland on the best way to deal with the legacy of the past. Their final report contained 31 recommendations.

In September 2007, the Consultative Group invited individuals and groups affected by the conflict (in Great Britain and in the Republic of Ireland, in addition to within Northern Ireland), to share their views on the legacy of the previous 40 years, to learn lessons and identify some actions that might be useful to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future.

Five working principles emerged from the consultation:

  1. dealing with the past is a process and not an event
  2. sensitivity towards victims and survivors is essential
  3. recommendations should be human rights compliant
  4. relationships matter and are the foundation for reconciliation
  5. consensual agreement is the ideal

The resulting document, the Eames-Bradley Report, was published in January 2009. The recommendations were divided into various sub-topics. The topic, “The legacy of the past and reconciliation”, had within its recommendations the establishment of an independent Legacy Commission, combining processes of reconciliation, justice and information recovery. Also, the proposed creation of a Reconciliation Forum would be a way to liaise with the Legacy Commission and the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland (CVSNI).

Other issues such as “victims and survivors”, “processes of justice and information recovery”, and “remembering” were discussed. Some recommendations were challenging for the general public. A particularly controversial recommendation was the proposal of a one-off ex-gratia recognition payment of £12,000 for the nearest relative of someone who died as a result of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, from January 1966.

Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations

Prof. McEvoy described the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations as an attempt by politicians to take responsibility for dealing with the past. He considers this a positive step, since it acknowledges that a collective action is needed across the political spectrum. There is a consensus to act. The idea was therefore to have a five-party agreement. But the agreement was not accepted by all parties, as hoped for.

These negotiations actually originated with a strategy in May 2013, named “Together: Building a United Community”, which called for the formation of a panel of parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, to deal with issues of parades, flags and emblems, and dealing with the past.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister invited Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan to serve as chair and vice-chair of this panel. Working over six months, they met up and organised broad consultations with the five biggest political parties, and invited submissions from interested individuals and groups.

The main approach was to build on the previous agreements, such as the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, by dealing with the issues ignored so far. One of the strong outcomes of the negotiations was a consensus of the need to deal with the past, as well as to deal with present contentious issues that divide Northern Ireland. The following set of institutions for this work were proposed:

  1. Historical Investigations Unit
  2. Independent Commission for Information Retrieval
  3. Implementation and Reconciliation Group

The shortcomings of the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations illustrate what still needs to be addressed. For instance, Brian Rowan (security correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland) argues that Northern Ireland society is not ready for a truth process, because “(a) we don’t know what truth means, and (b) what will a truth process deliver?”

At least the necessary discussion about the past in Northern Ireland has opened up. This itself is a positive step.

But while “the war of narratives has replaced the war of weapons”, as the 2014 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report puts it, there is peace without reconciliation.

The contest of narratives could be seen as a struggle to tear apart a tapestry of complex weaving. Perhaps if there was an appreciation that there will be no reconciliation until everyone accepts the cloth at hand (versus one we idealise it to be), then more constructive work could be more readily realised.

Research by Emilie GRAZIANI.

Last updated: 28 April 2014

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