Peace without the Past? Truth, Transition and the Northern Ireland Case

Chapter 2
Peace without the Past? Truth, Transition and the Northern Ireland Case

Cheryl Lawther


Transitional justice is a field on an upward path. In recent decades, the norms and principles of transitional justice and, in particular, truth recovery, have moved from the exceptional and exotic to become an axiomatic element of post-conflict reconstruction and, latterly, to where notions of ‘truth’, ‘reconciliation’, and ‘forgiveness’ permeate contemporary social and political debates in ‘settled’ societies (Teitel 2000; Roht-Arriaza and Mariecurrena 2006; McEvoy 2007). As this collection ably demonstrates, increasing scholarly attention has been paid to different forms of transitional justice mechanisms, their intersection with human rights norms and to those case studies where ‘dealing with the past’ is firmly embedded in the transitional process. It has, variously, been suggested that dealing with the past, particularly recovering truth about past human rights violations, is essential to democratic consolidation; reaffirming the rule of law; responding to victims’ needs; and challenging incompatible versions of the past in divided societies (Hayner 2011; Tutu 1999; Boraine 2000; Wielbelhaus-Brahm 2010).

Considerably less well explored and also under theorized are those sites where transitions from political violence have taken place in the absence of a formal investigation of the past, particularly the recovery of truth, via a truth commission or other similar mechanism. This absence leaves questions of whether ‘peace’ without the ‘past’ is a pragmatic political accommodation; to what extent recovering truth about the past is essential for political and social reconciliation; and why techniques of silence and denial appear to persist ‘post conflict’ unanswered. More fundamentally, and as is the focus of this chapter, as yet, transitional justice scholarship tells us little about why the purported benefits of truth recovery may be rejected and the practical, political and sociological influences which underpin such opposition.

This chapter draws on the Northern Ireland case study to begin to contribute to a more fully theorized understanding of opposition to truth recovery and transitional justice. While a variety of mechanisms which fall under the transitional justice rubric have played a part in Northern Ireland’s transition from political violence, at the time of writing, a formal overarching truth process has not been established and remains hotly contested. As well explored elsewhere, the utility of establishing such a body has been the subject of a lengthy and ongoing debate (see for example: Hamber 1998; Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 2005; Healing Through Remembering 2006; Consultative Group on the Past 2009; Lundy 2010). The most sustained and public opposition to a truth process has been from pro-state political actors – unionist political elites, loyalist ex-combatants and representatives of the security forces. Based on the author’s empirical research with these constituencies,1 this chapter sets out five thematic areas which can inform opposition to truth recovery. They are: competing interpretations of memory and blame(lessness); the politics of victimhood; the tension between trust and truth-telling; the need to honour – not betray – past sacrifices; and from a pragmatic perspective, the importance of maintaining political and social stability. Each is explored in turn below. This chapter argues that critically interrogating the motives and understandings of those who are opposed to truth recovery is essential to theoretically and empirically developing the transitional justice field.

Northern Ireland and the Trouble with Truth

While beyond the scope of this chapter, in brief, the Northern Ireland conflict, between unionists and loyalists, nationalists and republicans and the British and Irish states, lasted over 30 years, resulted in over 3,700 deaths and injured over 40,000 individuals (McKittrick et al. 2007). It has left a legacy of pain, division, socioeconomic deprivation and many unanswered questions. Despite, for example, making provision for the release and reintegration of political prisoners, the reform of the police force and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Belfast Agreement did not make reference to the need to establish a formal truth process (Northern Ireland Office 1998).

In this vacuum, a ‘piecemeal’ approach to truth recovery has taken place (Bell 2003: 1095). The main mechanisms include an array of high profile public inquiries – such as the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972; ‘right to life’ cases under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights; police led truth recovery – facilitated by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland2 and the Historical Enquiries Team;3 and victim-centred initiatives, such as the establishment of the Independent Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains, to help facilitate the recovery of the remains of those individuals murdered and ‘disappeared’ by the IRA (see for example: Saville, Hoyt and Toohey 2010; Anthony and Mageean 2007; HET undated; Healing Through Remembering 2006). The weaknesses and critiques of this approach to the past include the lack of effective response to victims’ need to hear and tell their stories (where so desired); the selective nature and financial cost of public inquiries; concerns over the impartiality and operational independence of the HET and OPONI; and how, in the absence of a formal truth process, the past is continuing to haunt the present, destabilizing the political institutions and impeding the peace process (CVSNI 2012; Hegarty 2003; Rolston and Scraton 2005; Lundy 2009, 2012; Bell 2003).

The debate on establishing a formal truth process has, however, been long and protracted. Arguably the most significant development was the establishment of the Consultative Group on the Past (CGP) in June 2007. Co-chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames, the former Church of Ireland primate and Denis Bradley, the former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB), its official terms of reference were:

To consult across the community how Northern Ireland society can best approach the legacy of the events of the past 40 years; and to make recommendations, as appropriate, on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the events of the past. (CGP 2009: 3)

Following a public consultation process, the Group published its Report in January 2009. One of its key recommendations was for the creation of a ‘Legacy Commission’, which, based on the three strands of ‘Review and Investigation’, ‘Information Recovery’ and ‘Thematic Examination’, was, essentially, a bespoke truth commission type body (CGP 2009). While the Report immediately faulted on the proposal that a ‘Recognition Payment’ of £12,000 would be paid to all victims of the conflict – civilians and former members of paramilitary organizations, there has been little progress on its other recommendations. At the time of writing, the former US envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, has recently been appointed to facilitate talks on issues related to flags, parades and the past (Northern Ireland Office 2013). His conclusions are due to be published by the end of 2013 and will undoubtedly involve further consideration on the establishment of a truth commission type body.

In the main, support for a formal truth process has fallen on sharp political divisions. Ostensibly at least, the main nationalist and republican political parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein (SF), have publicly supported the establishment of a formal truth process. The SDLP for example have advocated for an ‘ethical’ approach to the past and the necessity of a ‘robust truth process’, while SF have consistently called for the establishment of an independent international truth commission, to which parties to the conflict would be accountable (SDLP 2012; SF 2003, 2013). In contrast, unionist political elites (the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV)), loyalist ex-combatants and representatives of the security forces have remained opposed to the truth recovery debate and the establishment of a formal truth process. Key arguments include that a truth process would become ‘a Brit bashing session’ and provide an opportunity for republican politicians to ‘re-write’ the past, legitimizing their actions and that it would retraumatize bereaved families and victims (DUP 2003; UUP 2009; NIRPOA 2009). Their objections are the focus of this chapter.

Truth, Identity and the Past

Defined by Cohen (2001: 25) as ‘the need to be innocent of a troubling recognition’, the capacity of a truth process to challenge contested versions of the past is one of the most compelling and challenging features of transitional justice. The objective, in theory at least, is often to broaden ownership and responsibility for the past, inculcating the idea that ‘all sides in the struggle did bad things’ and complicating simple and polarized histories (Lawther 2014). The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for example, has been praised for the manner in which it held sectoral hearings into the role of the business, medical, legal, religious and prison communities during the apartheid era and, via the media, brought apartheid into the living rooms of white South Africans who could no longer say ‘I didn’t know’ (Dyzenhaus 1998; Boraine 1999, cited in Rolston 2002: 96).

Yet, conversely, for once and still powerful actors and where competing interpretations of blame and responsibility for the conflict continue to dominate the post-conflict landscape, a truth process may be rejected on the grounds that it challenges their identity and preferred reading of the past. In Northern Ireland, unionist political elite’s reluctance to countenance the idea that their actions or inactions, or those of the state, played a role in the causes or consequences of the conflict has been instrumental in shaping their opposition to a truth process. The CGP made several attempts to encourage unionists to begin to accommodate the idea that wrongs were committed by all parties to the conflict. An early speech by the Group’s co-chairs Archbishop Eames and Denis Bradley noted that while it is difficult, unionists need to consider their own ‘ugly truths’, including the fact that the state, at times, acted outside the law (Eames and Bradley 2008). Eames argued, ‘This is one of the crucial issues facing us as a Group, difficult as it may be for some in our society to hear that elements of the State, on occasions, acted outside the law’ (Eames and Bradley 2008). Such arguments were not well received. Pointing a highly polarized view of the conflict and a narrative of blamelessness, senior unionist figures have critiqued the Report of the CGP and therefore the idea of a truth process as ‘promoting the view that it is the fault of unionism from 1921’ and based on the assumption of ‘too much guilt’ (UUP 2009; Birnie 2009).

These objections also link to a highly stratified understanding of the relationship between truth recovery and the notion of blame. For Ignatieff (1998), the very point of a truth recovery exercise is to leave no one untarnished – the contribution of such a venture is to expose the myth of blamelessness. Rejecting the need to broaden ownership and responsibility for the conflict, unionists have made two distinct arguments. First is that a truth process would be used to ‘blame’ unionists and members of the security forces for the conflict, and second is that a truth process should be used to place all responsibility for the conflict with republican paramilitaries.4 Speaking to a determination to apportion ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and a mirroring of the lines of the conflict, a truth process may be interpreted as part of this battle. As this example illustrates, the contested nature of the past can directly map onto and structure opposition to a formal truth process (Lawther 2014).

Truth and the Politics of Victimhood

As well set out by Bouris (2007) and Borer (2003), in the aftermath of violent conflict, the definition of a ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’ is inherently politicized. Daniel Bar-Tal (2003: 78) notes that groups in conflict tend to form selective ‘collective memories’ of violence that focus mainly on the other side’s responsibility for the outbreak and continuation of the conflict and its misdeeds, violence and atrocities while at the same time ‘concentrating on their own self-justification, self-righteousness, glorification and victimization’. In this contest, articulating a narrative of victimhood has been interpreted as a way of garnering support and sympathy, and, based on the argument that ‘in as far as they are victims, they are devoid of volition or intent’, can be used to claim legitimacy for past actions (Gilligan 2003: 30; Cohen 2001). As Marie Breen Smyth (2003: 126–7) argues, for those who participated in the violence of the past, without the status of victimhood, ‘their violence becomes too naked, politically inexplicable, and morally indefensible’. By implication, to be outside this categorization of victimhood is to be aligned with notions of guilt, illegitimacy and complicity. It may also involve a reluctance to countenance the victimhood of the ‘other’, which as Nadler and Schnabel (2008, cited in Aiken 2010: 181) warn, is a common danger in post-conflict societies where a sense of ‘double victimhood’ prevails and in which each identity group perceives itself to be the sole legitimate victim of past violence and expects its enemies to accept responsibility for past wrongdoing (Brewer 2010).

The politicization of victimhood in Northern Ireland has had a direct bearing on attitudes to truth recovery. Particularly problematic for unionists and forming the backdrop to much of their opposition to a truth process is the statutory definition of a victim contained in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. As an ‘inclusive’ definition, the Order includes victims, former combatants and their families. Adhering to a highly polarized definition of victimhood, unionists have sought to maintain a sharp demarcation between victims and combatants and the associated concepts of ‘innocence’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (DUP 2007, 2011; UUP 2011; Lawther 2013, 2014). Privileging a hierarchal conception of victimhood and the identity of the ‘real’ and ‘innocent’ victims of the conflict, to challenge or complicate these categories as the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 does, is perceived as offering justification and legitimacy to the actions of paramilitary organizations (DUP 2007, 2011; UUP 2011; Lawther 2014). It has also been perceived to deny and exacerbate the Protestant community’s memories of loss and ‘disproportionate’ victimization (Hayward and Mitchell 2003).

Against this backdrop, unionists and representatives of the security forces have consistently argued that a formal truth process would seek to create or imply ‘moral equivalence’ between the actions of victims and combatants (Williams and Scharf 2002; Birnie 2009; Patterson 2009; McAdam 2012; NIRPOA 2009).5 This critique has been manifested in a number of ways and is illustrative of the competing narratives which attempt to explain the causes of the conflict. One of the strongest of these, and made in the light of the publication of the Report of the CGP (2009), was made by a member of the TUV who argued that the entire purpose of a truth process would be to create moral equivalence, treating all narratives of the past with equal validity and respect (Lawther 2013).6 Equally problematic is the question of whether an amnesty or limited immunity should be offered to aid and incentivize truth recovery. Not without precedent in Northern Ireland and given the decreasing possibility of achieving large numbers of criminal prosecutions, a form of limited immunity was recommended by the Consultative Group on the Past (CGP 2009; Bell 2003; Duffy 2010; McEvoy and Mallinder 2008). This recommendation was opposed by unionist political elites and members of the security forces who have variously described an amnesty as ‘sickening and unacceptable’, ‘immoral’, and a ‘betrayal’ of innocent victims (News Letter 2008). Perceived to blur the line between innocence and intent

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