Facing the Future: Peace and Reconciliation

I had already started this article when I received a copy of the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, headed by by the former Church of Ireland Archbishop Eames (of Armagh) and Denis Bradley, former Vice-chairman of the N.I.Policing Board.

The group had been charged with coming up with ways by which reconciliation could be effected between the two Northern Ireland Communities and how they might come to closure from the many years of trauma experienced by families during the civil conflict.

I have very largely retained most of my comments as my reading of the report shows that my perception of the approach they made to the issues are in the main confirmed.

The two authors who have themselves played a significant part in efforts to achieve a cessation of violence and in the Peace Process afterwards, approached their task on the basis that all those who suffered during the ‘Bloody Period’, including those actually involved from both sides and those with responsibility for policing as well as the military in various were, all in all, victims of history.

However, the proposal to award 12,000 to each family who had suffered, irrespective of whether they were actively involved or not, was bound to be contentious and likely to generate resurgence of the antagonisms which permeated the violence and therefore counterproductive in the reconciliation objective. So it was right that Secretary of State Shaun Woodward should set this aside, not for ever, but for the immediate future.

From press and other media reports it seems there are some disputes over other parts of the document which indicates that the baggage of the past still hangs like drag chains upon efforts to keep the ship of reconciliation moving into more tranquil waters.

It, as I have said before, will not be easy, and those who understand and have knowledge of history, of the broken promises, the frustrated hopes down the centuries, the humiliation, arrogance and misguided governance that swelled the wellsprings of violence, will acknowledge the enormous effort needed to ensure the success of the structures set out in the 1998 Agreement, as amended at Saint Andrews in October 2006.

I am quite concerned by the statement which followed the announcement of a reconstituted Conservative Unionist Alliance, that if returned to government at the next Westminster election, they are intent on renegotiating the terms of the above mentioned Agreement. To do so would, in my view, destabilise the not yet robust Peace Process.

Attendance at the University Forum in Belfast was not possible for me. There Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber released under the terms of the Agreement after fourteen years imprisonment who almost caught Margaret Thatcher, then UK Prime Minister, when his bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, met Jo Berry, the daughter of the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry who was killed by the explosion.

This event was part of a group effort to help those who were on opposite sides to come to terms with the past. Whilst in prison, Magee studied and obtained a Phd. The daughter of the MP is into meditation. In front of an audience of some forty people they discussed how they had come to terms with each other.

There was a subsequent half hour programme on BBC Radio Four which I listened to when they exchanged their views again.

It was quite clear that Magee, although he expressed sorrow for the death of the lady's father, still set his action in the circumstances of the issues of discrimination and oppression felt and experienced by the minority over many many years. He agreed, however, that if another route had been open the objective would have been better served without violence.

The daughter of the former MP, who at the time of her father’s death had only begun to establish an understanding relationship with him, said she was coming to terms with her loss and she understood how Magee had been shaped by events. But as she had chosen the path of life in meditation she could work with Magee who was now engaged with work for peace and reconciliation.

Clausewitz, the 19th century German strategist, said that "War is simply politics with weapons and in every peace treaty lie the seeds of another conflict". That danger is not entirely absent even in the 1998 settlement in Northern Ireland for a lot of baggage, accumumulated in the recent ‘Troubles’, is just as heavy, indeed more so, than the hangovers still around from the past centuries of unrest and resistance.

Therefore the recent decision to reconstruct the old Conservative Unionist political association pledged to contest jointly the next UK general election could relight the fierce resentments, especially now that they have stated that if they are returned to power they will seek to negotiate changes to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

And it will be interesting to see whether they will venture to openly support the 'No' side or even intrude into the the referendum in the Irish Republic later this year on the Lisbon Treaty which subject is likely to arise during the June European parliamentary elections.

Turning again to the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past this contains suggestions as to how the process can be taken forward.

I have already made reference to the question of compensation to families, which has not been universally approved.

However, in their summary of the main recommendations they suggest setting up an independent Legacy Commission to combine processes of reconciliation, justice and information recovery with the objective of promoting peace and stability.

Also recommeded is a Reconciliation Forum, through which the Legacy Commission and the Commission for Victims and Survivors (already existing) would liaise to tackle certain society issues relating to the conflict.

To carry out their overarching remit the Legacy Commission should have a bursary of 100 million.

The Report envisages the appointment of an International Commissioner to the Chair and two Assistant Commissioners to deal with the four strands of work: 1) helping society towards a reconciled future; 2) reviewing and investigating historical cases; 3) conducting the process of information recovery and 4) examining linked or thematic cases emerging from the conflict. They would in particular have to address the issue of sectarianism.

It is also recommended that the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister should join with the British and Irish governments in this initiative and that the Commission should initially have a remit for five years.

Within the Legacy Commission they would have an independent unit to deal with the processes of justice and information recovery which would take over the work of the Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman's Unit, and build on the work already done. Investigating and the recovery of information important to relatives would be separated processes.

The report did not propose an amnesty but suggested that at the end of five years the Commission itself could make recommendations on a line being drawn from which Northern ireland could best move to a shared future.

The report was wide ranging and is the result of extensive discussions across the many sections and groups at work in the society engaged in reconciliation, and specifically highlights the ways suggested to move the process forward.

I have only touched on a few aspects they dealt with, and as the issues are complex and involved, they can best be explored via the expected cross community discussions on the contents, which the authors suggest, to arrive at a consensus on the main suggestions they raise.

If I may pick out one, they support the idea of a shared day of reflection, initiated in Northern Ireland by an organisation called Healing through Remembering and suggest it should be held on the 21st June each year.

They also suggest that this should involve government, the private sector, the voluntary sector and the churches and that on or around this day, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should make keynote addresses to the Northern Ireland Assembly and invited guests. This, they say, would provide an opportunity to lead by example and confirm their commitment to lead towards a shared and reconciled future.

It is not clear why this date has been chosen, although it may be connected to the fact that Peter Hain, the then Secretary of State Northern Ireland, announced on June 22nd 2007 the setting up of this Consultative Group. Why they didn't choose 10th April, the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, or to fix the date on a particular Sunday, I wouldn't know.

However, the context of the report raises all aspects and issues which lay at the core causes and heat of the years of Bloody Turmoil and requires both communities to face up to the factors of its genesis and to the necessity of coming to terms with it and with the essential need to face a common future, via peace and reconciliation.

This need is reinforced by the cross party, cross community unity shown in response to the tragic deaths of two soldiers and a Police Service of Northern Ireland policeman, assassinated last weekend by gunmen believed to be Republican dissidents from the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA.

The unequivocal condemnation by all Northern Ireland’s political leaders is a clear indication of their resolve to stand together to defend the peace process. The same stance was taken at both the Westminster and the Dublin parliaments.

©: Samuel H.Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 11 March, 2009.

Samuel H. Boyd