Social Affairs

Tinkering at the edges of reconciliation is neither wise nor helpful

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Reconciliation is a painful, challenging and ultimately fraught process. The choice and use of language are critical, and those seeking to help the process must tread with the utmost care. At first glance, the proposed ceremony to be hosted by the four main Christian churches in Ireland seems to have gotten off to a poor start.

Family feuds, for example, can run for years. Even through generations and they can cause serious pain and conflict. By the time anyone thinks of trying to reconcile the differences, it can often be hugely challenging trying to unpick the origins from the tangled reeds of time.

In such circumstances, people are often encouraged to forget the past and move on, or perhaps, to forgive and forget. While such advice seems intuitively good, it is always prone to fail, because as humans, we are not wired like that.

Following the ‘forgive and forget’ path inevitably leads to more pain and frustration and will never yield anything even close to reconciliation or genuine forgiveness.

Anyone invested in reconciliation over a past deed or event must commit to a process that is challenging and sometimes quite painful. Ask the families of recovering alcoholics or drug users and they will tell you. It is almost never a short process and always involves listening – really listening to the other side of the story. It means challenging one’s own beliefs and assumptions.

The alternative, of course, is much simpler. Avoid the issue and hope it goes away. As the prime minister said, “We cannot try to edit or censor our past,” so perhaps best not to look too closely at it.

This approach has not worked well in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter. Despite the strenuous efforts of some in Northern Ireland over the decades since partition, the events in history are as alive today as they were back then.

If one chooses to throw light on history, then different and competing narratives will emerge. This is the raw material of sense-making and reconciliation.

It is with some confusion then that I read about the intention of church leaders in Ireland to host a service that marks the centenary of the setting up of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland.  Perhaps few would have noticed or paid much attention had it not been for the declination of the invite by Ireland’s head of state, President Michael D. Higgins.

Speaking on RTE after the president’s decision became public knowledge,  the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rev Dr David Bruce commented that it was never the intention of the organisers to politicise the event.  The leaders of the protestant and Catholic churches released a statement saying that they regretted the “the polarised political commentary” that has emerged since the president made known his decision.

But what, I wonder, were they expecting? The issues that need reconciling in Northern Ireland, and between the people on this island and our neighbours in Britain are inherently political. If there was a failure to recognise this by the churches, then that was a lamentable failing.

Imagine blundering into a family that has been beset by years of violence, trauma and deep-seated conflict and then suggesting that they should all just come together and pray. What might they pray for? What might they hope to achieve? And what might they do with the feelings and memories that are surfaced?

Cultural identity is a deeply held emotional response to history and origins that is expressed politically and, as such, it is at the mercy of those who speak politically. It is often said that the world is full of good intentions, and there is no doubt that the intention for this service is good. In declining his invitation, President Higgins has drawn attention to a simple fact. Not everyone is able to commemorate an event that for many has been the cause of much bloodshed, loss, and trauma.

Reconciliation is hard, challenging work. According to leading experts, Oliver Ramsbotham and fellow authors, reconciliation lies at the very heart of peacebuilding. It is said to have four stages or dimensions, but each has in common, the process of attaching meaning to past events. For it to be successful, it must involve participation from all those involved.

The process that led up to the Good Friday Agreement is regarded as a fine example of this work. Yet, because, arguably, the work was never completed, we find ourselves teetering on the brink of further discord within Northern Ireland. Ongoing peace and reconciliation has been surrendered to politicians, in the guise of power-sharing.

Some, not all, politicians and parties remain wedded to their version of the past until either one or the other emerges the victor. That is, quite simply, far less than the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

According to the Committee on the Administration of Justice in 2018, some twenty years after the GFA was signed, major commitments, particularly those concerned with human rights, a Bill of Rights, Irish Language Act, and the repeal of emergency legislation had not been met. Brexit has since added to the challenges being faced.

The work of recovering from past traumas and injustices is hugely complex and it requires the utmost sensitivity from those who put themselves forward as helpers or facilitators. They bear a huge responsibility to avoid further harm to any side. As the churches navigate the complex steps and discussions needed to make this service both relevant and helpful, the ongoing political conflict is proceeding unabated.

The DUP’s ongoing threat to withdraw from the Assembly and seek an election that is primarily about the continuing NI Protocol crisis, a proxy argument about the constitutional position, seems to run in almost direct contradiction to the stated objectives of the service in Armagh.

The president of Ireland has drawn attention to the stark reality that most people recognise. Northern Ireland is being thrown into a period of uncertainty and potential harm because it is being forced to confront the core issues of constitutional allegiances long before it is ready by those political leaders whose idea of reconciliation seems to be centred on maintaining the status quo through the contest of political power.

There is of course a role for the churches and religious in our community to help us work toward a proper and shared understanding of our past. But it will take work that is of a much more complex nature than organising a ceremony. Quite how the churches propose to involve themselves in reconciliation in the future remains lamentably unclear.

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