Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Gathering student voices to tackle Northern Ireland's past

It was a risk. Forty-five strangers loosely assembled at a boarding gate. Jeremiahs and enthusiasts, the confident and the nervous – and, sprinkled throughout, students from Dublin and Dundalk, who knew more about the French Revolution than the particularities of our conflict.

No truth-kick encounters here. The main complaint was exhaustion. When not engaged in workshops, they were tramping the backstreets of London, witnessing what others have to put up with.

We feared that the strong sense of group endeavour might hit a bump and come apart. But it didn't. They had come to prepare for a surprisingly delicate endeavour – a ballet on eggshells. They wanted their story and that of their family, townland and fraternity to be preserved.

More – they had come to pick up tools and skills to take home for neighbours and colleagues.

How can we gather voices that want and need to be heard, and do so safely, within strong bounds of ethics, law and good practice?

The programme has spawned numerous cross-community and cross-border projects. This is a toolkit for dealing with aspects of the past.

It is, of course, not a panacea. Hundreds of families have suffered the ultimate loss. They cry out for accountability and their stories must not be diminished.

But exploring the dark recesses of our past calls for Anglo-Irish dynamism, astutely balanced legislation, and considerably more political consensus than we have seen to date.

In the meantime, other tales can be told – of the democracy of a labour ward, the needs-must of a silage shortage and the odd bolt of lightning that welded and sealed. At times, we are restricted to half-truths – to the reality of everyday life. This is a rational compromise to gather imperfect knowledge.

Last year, Owen Paterson asked how this pilot might be extended. We proposed a low-cost, franchise-based model. Ministerial changes brought new priorities. With Christmas fast approaching, might Dr Haass be tempted by our drive-through model?

Dr Anna Bryson is co-director of The Peace Process: Layers of Meaning project. www.peaceprocesshistory.org

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