A Controversial Approach to Healing Northern Ireland's Violent Past

By Gareth Higgins 01-29-2009

It's a significant week in Northern Ireland, with the latest development in the long-running peace process. The report of the Consultative Group on the Past -- established to recommend how we might find ways to deal with the legacy of nearly 4,000 murders, 43,000 physical injuries, a divided society, and brokenness everywhere -- has been published. The report includes suggesting, among many other things, establishing a legacy commission to investigate violence and provide information, a bursary to address the effects of the conflict, including addiction and suicide prevention, and calling on churches to take responsibility for their/our role in nurturing the social context in which the conflict could occur.

It's a controversial report -- very little in Northern Irish public life isn't controversial -- because it deals with the monumental pain of decades in which neighbors suspected neighbors, people were blown up in public places, and nobody could feel entirely safe. The suggestion that family members of people killed should receive an 'acknowledgement payment' has been particularly focused on in the media because it makes no distinction between non-combatant civilians on the one hand, and combatants in the police, army, and illegal paramilitary organizations like the IRA and their Loyalist counterparts on the other. There are good reasons for this, for victim hierarchies serve to continue our society's division; just as much, there are completely legitimate reasons for some to feel hurt by the suggestion that their pain is equal to that of the relatives of someone who killed another person before being killed themself.

It's important reading for anyone with an interest in Northern Ireland, as well as anyone who cares about questions of dealing with violence and trauma anywhere. Perhaps the most important element is the fact that the principles of restorative justice are implied in the consultative group's report: an attempt to transcend revenge and establish a way forward based on the understanding that justice and mercy go hand in hand -- and that your security and mine depend on each other.

The Consultative Group on the Past have given more serious attention to the question of trauma and societal healing than almost any other initiative anywhere in the world, and their report is a document of historic significance. I can't over-emphasise how important it may be for people to read, whether or not they have any connection with Northern Ireland. We in Northern Ireland were stunned by the ongoing, repeating, and spiralling wounds of our recent past; and it has taken over a decade to get to the stage of even starting to negotiate our future together. This report builds on the case that burying the scars of violence and trauma do not heal them any more than vengeance makes a victim feel better in the long term. It might offer some contributions to the questions of conflict and its aftermath that face us all; indeed, as my adopted country of the U.S. emerges from a traumatic period in its own history, some of the principles outlined in this report might be useful too.

Gareth HigginsDr. Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com.

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