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Northern Ireland parties need a bold new vision

'Reconciliation' and 'forgiveness' are terms too conceptually fuzzy to be given serious consideration as part of Northern Ireland's legacy process. But without them there can be no progress towards a more tolerant future, says Graham Spencer

Published 01/01/2016

Peace campaigner Gordon Wilson and daughter Marie Wilson who was killed in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day parade bombing in 1987
Peace campaigner Gordon Wilson and daughter Marie Wilson who was killed in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day parade bombing in 1987
Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley

Imagine this. As they return from the Christmas break and start to move into election mode, the political parties are given an exercise by the British and Irish Governments. They must produce two position papers: one on reconciliation and the other on forgiveness.

Each party will seek to offer a definition of reconciliation and forgiveness, along with an elaboration on what is needed for each to take place. Each paper should be no longer than 1,000 words. What would be the point of such an undertaking?

The aim would be to develop a means by which to think about the conflict in human rather than political terms and in the process shift the emphasis from a legacy process based on confrontation to one based on co-operation.

No doubt each party would set out a list of conditions which would be at odds with others, with reconciliation seen as a matter of apology and admissions of guilt by some, while for others forgiveness would be inconceivable without justice.

But if a serious attempt to build a legacy process on the basis of tolerance rather than intolerance through reconciliation and forgiveness were pursued, Northern Ireland might be able to move away from the past rather than keep being expected to re-experience it.

As it stands, politics in Northern Ireland is about making sure the past is not left behind and that somehow it is remembered over and over again.

And this is because the political parties are largely a product of that past, gained access to power because of exploiting it and are unlikely to relinquish that linkage precisely because it is inextricably liked to their success and who they are.

But if this is so and there is no attempt to change this association between politics and the past, the political limits of dealing with the legacy of conflict have already been reached.

What is surely important for the benefit of Northern Ireland as a whole is that the parties begin to rethink and confront their traditional methods and practices of doing politics.

The significance of getting the parties to think about reconciliation and forgiveness is that it could, if engaged with seriously, produce a movement away from thinking about "us" towards thinking about "all".

Once that happens, there will be a cultural shift, where what is politically desirable becomes less important than what is socially necessary.

Without question, each party will have a different and even contradictory understanding of what is needed to bring reconciliation and forgiveness about, and for sure there will be much contention about whether either is even possible.

But if both become the primary focus for dealing with the legacy of conflict, then a new picture can start to emerge.

If the recent Fresh Start document cannot agree on how a legacy process will work, then evidently political interests are trumping the value of social needs. Or, to put it another way, expected political outcomes from dealing with the past are taking priority over the social value of such a process. Indeed, one might reasonably ask, what is the value of a legacy process anyway and how will it lead to a better future?

To use an academic word, this is all about "framing". If the design of a legacy process is constructed on the basis of how it will make each side look more or less responsible for conflict, it will be become nothing more than a destructive enterprise. It will also ensure that the past becomes the new battleground for conflict.

If, on the other hand, it is designed to develop agreed expectations about addressing common social needs, then it becomes a very worthwhile undertaking indeed.

And, surely, the starting point for understanding that common social need is to acknowledge that the suffering wrought by conflict is ultimately experienced at an individual level? It is individuals who, when they shut their door at night, are left to deal with the consequences of pain and who will find little to help them with that in the images, or messages, of a political party.

There is no support for them to be found in the mechanics of political policy or strategy either, no matter how much others try to convince them otherwise.

Admittedly, there are considerable problems with trying to define reconciliation and forgiveness. How, for example, can one community reconcile itself to what it has done to its own people as well as others? Does the motivation, or suggestion of forgiveness, imply giving in to an enemy, and is it likely to bring further pain from one's own side because of it? Can reconciliation have any meaning in communal terms?

But such questions should have been at the centre of political discussion once the structures for democratic government were in place. Unfortunately, this failed to happen because, seen through the political lens, the very terms reconciliation and forgiveness tend to be associated with weakness, concession and loss.

Rather than being seen as a mark of courage and strength, in the predictable zero-sum political world, both reconciliation and forgiveness are problematically fuzzy and so too risky to merit serious consideration.

To be fair, Sinn Fein have for some time spoken about the need for difficult conversations and have used the word reconciliation for years, but there has been no attempt from unionism to find any potential value in the idea.

In turn, Sinn Fein has nothing to say about forgiveness, because reconciliation is inextricably linked to the party's equality agenda drive and to an extension of party political aims, which forgiveness would interfere with and undermine.

Yet, if the political parties could bring themselves to start thinking constructively about reconciliation and forgiveness and the two governments could work to forge an agreed framework for a legacy process built on principles drawn from these two concepts, Northern Ireland has a better chance to move away from an intolerant past and into a more tolerant future.

There would be much dispute about how to do this and the debate will be littered with obstructions, both real and contrived. But it would be a better way to contain the responsibilities of dealing with the past and be more likely to transform relationships through this containment.

Without the courage to rethink the context and environment within which a legacy process is supposed to work, the past in Northern Ireland will continue to haunt and permeate the future and in the process condemn children and grandchildren to the expected responsibilities of conflict, rather than help strengthen and develop the responsibilities of peace.

Dr Graham Spencer is reader in political conflict at the University of Portsmouth

Belfast Telegraph

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