14 February 2009
In 2005, I wrote a column about Ireland entitled A country whose time has come, highlighting the good-will and humanity shown by a group of Protestants from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, who helped their Catholic neighbours remove the sectarian graffiti daubed on the Catholic Church of Our Lady. They wanted to show Loyalists that they did not support sectarian violence - a positive sign that the communities of Northern Ireland were ready to put the past behind them and move forward with hope into the 21st century.
In 2009, spurred on by the recent rumpus about the proposed £12,000 'compensation payment' to all victims of the Northern Ireland conflict, I decided to revisit the subject.
I began by reading the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, coordinated by Lord Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. The report contains 31 recommendations of which the proposed 'compensation' payment is just one – but it was seized upon by the media for its sensational value. Robin Eames explained the rationale behind it: "It is not compensation by another name; it is an acknowledgement of their loss and their individual and collective pain".
Many people during the consultation process pressed for a recommendation to ensure that their grief was recognised - but they feared putting a monetary value on a loved one’s life. The raw emotion, unleashed from both sides of the sectarian divide, at the pre-emptive publication of this single recommendation, indicates their fears were justified. It might be better to channel the money into a fund accessible to communities for mutually constructive purposes.
Robin Eames puts his finger on the crux of the problem: "We are still terrified that if we acknowledge the grief and moral position of other people, it will dilute the grief of our own". This is true in all conflicts. There are at least two sides to every story – and as many sets of perceptions – whatever the facts on the ground. The need for those affected by the conflict to 'tell their stories' runs like a leitmotiv throughout the report. To hear and understand what it looked like from ‘the other side’ is the key to moving on to a shared future.
For both nationalists who felt discriminated against, as much as for Unionists who felt threatened, the UK government has a responsibility to acknowledge its own mistakes in the governance of Ulster. The Prime Minister’s recent comment on the 'compensation' proposal is not hopeful. The Guardian editorial of 29 January describes it: "Meanwhile, at Westminster, a furious Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionists demanded that Gordon Brown should disavow this 'obnoxious proposal'. Less than 30 minutes after Lord Eames pleaded for political leaders and opinion formers to avoid 'instant responses' to his ideas, Mr Brown told MPs that Mr Dodds 'speaks for the whole community in Northern Ireland' – which he most certainly does not – and promptly appeared to boot the whole payment idea into deep touch."
This lack of understanding of the issues behind the Northern Ireland conflict, at the highest levels of British Government, has been part of the problem all along. It is troubling to see it continuing. Another challenge to reconciliation is combating the compulsion to pass on hatred from one generation to the next. Speaking to parents about children in The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says: "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you - For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."