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Exhuming the past is much more than just fighting talk

Healing Through Remembering director Kate Turner spoke with a banner at her side - and on it the words: Whatever you say, say something.

On its own, that short sentence says a lot about the distance we have travelled; a considerable distance from the words that once cautioned: Whatever you say, say nothing.

The Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson was in the audience, as was Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA bomb on the Shankill Road in 1993.

This event, in my hometown of Holywood, was organised by the Sanctus Boscus Reconciliation Group, and I had been asked to say a few words at the end of the talk by Ms Turner.

It was a night of many questions, but not many answers.

Healing Through Remembering is in the business of peace-building and has conducted detailed research on processes that, in other conflict areas, have sought to address the questions of the past. On this issue, Secretary of State Owen Paterson will have something to say in a few weeks' time.

In Holywood, the conversation stretched across a range of issues. One woman raised concern about media reporting; that in her thinking there is too much of a concentration and focus on looking back.

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This part of the discussion was prompted by the BBC programme As Others See Us, in which journalists Peter Taylor, Kate Adie, Martin Bell and Bill Neely journeyed back into that reporting period of the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

There was a question about what do we tell our children and a discussion about how we describe the events of those recent decades.

Was it a war? A conflict? A terrorist campaign? Why do we call it the Troubles? And does this particular description understate the horror of what happened?

There was a question about raising difficult issues with friends and neighbours: Is it best to say something? Or say nothing?

All of these issues and concerns will have been discussed many times inside the Healing Through Remembering project.

It has been a place for difficult conversation - for dealing with, rather than avoiding, issues.

Kate Turner was asked about the seminars the project organises. Who is invited and who decides who is invited?

The project has an open door and, under its roof, there are people from many different backgrounds: police, military, republican, loyalist, church, community and other.

Its role so far has not been to recommend, or to try to impose, a process that will address the many questions on the past, but rather to provide a number of options for consideration.

Inside Healing Through Remembering, doors have been opened into conversations that not long ago would have been unthinkable.

Minds have been opened. People have been challenged to think outside their own specific situations and circumstances.

The project has created a path along which people have turned important corners on life's journey.

What was clear in the discussion is that there are no easy answers: no quick fix; no way of making the past disappear in some type of thaw.

For many, what happened during the 1970s, '80s and '90s is a frozen moment in their lives; not the past, but not the present, either.

So, whatever Owen Paterson decides, it will not be enough for many people. But it is not just his decision.

In the period ahead, different players from many sides will have to decide what their contribution to all of this is going to be.

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