There is a stand-out sentence in David Park’s novel ‘The Truth Commissioner’ that reads: ” “Day after day, it’s as if the dam is breached and out pours a torrent of rising levels of hurt that have been stored over long winters of grief.”
Of course, in Northern Ireland there is no such Truth Commission but, rather, a continuing battle over the past that poisons the present.
Recently, there has been one of those periods of remembering, within which the dam was breached; this in the remembering of October 1993 and that week that stretched from the Shankill bomb to the Greysteel shootings and the six killings in-between – Martin Moran, Sean Fox, James Cameron, Mark Rodgers and brothers Gerard and Rory Cairns.
The dam was breached in the recalling and telling of stories from the rubble of 1993, from the ambulances and from the homes visited by the horrors of that week. There are people who will never forget and they must be heard.
I spoke on this at the launch of Professor John Brewer’s latest books (The sociology of compromise after conflict and The sociology of everyday life peacebuilding).The event was at Queen’s University on October 31st. Brewer’s work and that of his research team is important in its listening to the experiences of those directly touched by conflicts in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa.
Around 200 stories were logged; research that records personal experiences and the needs of those who have been hurt. These are not political scripts or lines, and this work will make an important contribution to the continuing discussions, debates and dialogues. Often, we find that those who have been hurt the most give the most to peace-building efforts.
And why is it important that we listen to and hear and record these experiences? Because when we remember we also forget. Two days before the Shankill bomb, John Gibson was shot dead at his home on the outskirts of north Belfast. The day after the Greysteel pub attack, reserve police constable Brian Woods was shot and died days later. In our remembering, they become forgotten people; lost in the blizzard of the conflict years.
The legacy process currently being developed in Northern Ireland is far too political in its design and intention. We need a past process – not a police process or a prison process. Sending a small number of people to jail is not addressing the past. We have watched as the negotiating process has become a political play.
So, what do we need to do?
We need to hear and record the stories of those who want to tell them. Those academics, along with others who have experience in this, should help design that process. That there has been no decision yet on a pension for the injured is one example of the political play and delay.
We need to de-politicise legacy, and we need to work out how the maximum amount of information is achieved to address the many unanswered questions.
The past must not be repeated.
What will the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 deliver – the structure that includes an Historical Investigations Unit and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval? Can the two work together?
For decades, politics has been part of the problem, and the political agreement of 2014 has become a disagreement and a battle, within which there is no healing.
How do you lift the past out of that fight? How do you stop us from shovelling our experiences on top of future generations? There is much to think about as the Northern Ireland Office considers the responses to its recent consultation and the next steps.