Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

John Larkin's call to draw a line under the past is not adequate, but repetitive arguments about the Troubles will not deliver reconciliation

The Attorney General's proposal to draw a line under the past will founder without the experiences of survivors at its core, writes Peter Shirlow

Attack scene: Can the suggestions of Attorney General John Larkin fit with needs of relatives and survivors of those killed in Troubles attacks such as Teebane in 1992?

John Larkin's supposition that a line should be drawn under the past has received the usual, oppositional responses. For some – even those who survived loss – there will be a firm "Yes". Others will not accept what is recommended and, via many mediums, will aim to subvert such a proposition through invoking moral contempt.

Like all else in Northern Ireland, there is no consensus, but at least, whether one agrees with John Larkin or otherwise, the desire to deal with the past does not simply fit into the Orange and Green moulds.

In some cases, there is even disagreement with families, who lost loved-ones, regarding how to deal with the past.

Some have moved on; have employed faith, or broad humanistic emotions, and have sought recovery through closure, while others are deeply affected, angry, bitter, acrimonious, alienated and, ultimately, alone in their own sorrow.

There is no truth about the past, but a series of truths, allegiances and experiences framed by what were different experiences.

We should not, in a society defined by community background and territorial division, have assumed that this would not be the case.

In that context of diversity, of feeling and blame-casting, the Attorney General may have concluded that the legal capacity and generosity of thought, action and deed needed to affect a more shared and meaningful accounting of the past is unachievable.

The battle-lines and the proxy war over victims are tied to the same discursive battles that were themselves the cause of conflict. Like many, John Larkin may well be fed-up with the Orwellian treatment of the past linked to republicanism-is-good/the-state-was-pernicious versus the-state-was-good/paramilitaries-were-immoral.

Of course, in reality, there is a plague on many houses and multiple reasons why Northern Ireland lapsed into societal mayhem and pernicious cycles of violence.

Unfortunately, the trench into which politics has fallen creates a sense of the non-negotiable. In that frozen politics, the past must be dealt with "our" way, either through punishment, or restorative truth-seeking.

Thus far, we have had inquiries into state violence, which – although important – have been framed in such a manner that they merely advanced the sense among some (generally unionists) that violence conducted by paramilitaries was not afforded the same status and inspection.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the process of returning some to prison have also been tried. These approaches have not created common ground, or equal treatment, or a shared platform for conflict transformation.

If anything, they have probably re-traumatised some who wonder why their loss is used for political contention, or simply, as they would see it, ignored. Without doubt and with regard to the past, we are both somewhere and nowhere.

Collectively, we have been poor at reconciliation and the envisioning of a shared future, choosing either to push one version of the past, while some have simply walked away from the ruins of suspicion, harm, mistrust and violence.

We have permitted the wheel that squeaks the most to receive the oil; paid too much attention to the anger and recrimination and the noise of conjecture and rarely asked those who are prepared to reconcile what they feel and think.

All is clamour with disregard for the quiet and more peaceful among us. I would support the Attorney General if his appeal is based upon how we reconcile, define the future and place the future ahead of the past, but I do not think line drawing under the past is adequate.

I would propose a typology in which accounting, experiencing and supporting survivors was forthcoming. Ultimately, the repetitive arguments about the past will not deliver, so we need to fashion a different architecture.

Within that framework, no one has to change their allegiances, but instead we would aim for recognition of loss. We will never convince everybody what a victim is, nor what was legitimate and/or appropriate. In Northern Ireland, we are the experts in the political folly that we can somehow win the unwinnable battles over right and wrong.

What I would propose would be as follows. Firstly, we use material and evidence to create a public account of deaths and, in so doing, encourage information to be passed to an oversight body from all of the agencies involved.

This would be similar to the approach regarding information used to locate the Disappeared.

Secondly, we record against each death the impact of loss upon families, their narrative and biography. This second part being the site at which the pain and horror of loss is recognised as shared and mutual.

Some of that material already exists.

For upcoming generations, it is not the glorification that we want, but a proper reading of the impact of killing upon those who survived.

Finally, we seriously address the emotional, physical and other needs of those in need. In essence, we begin with the cultural critic and writer Edward Said's proposition that: "You cannot continue to victimise someone else just because you yourself were a victim once – there has to be a limit".

Professor Peter Shirlow is a senior research fellow in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University, Belfast

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