The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Facing the Truth About the North


David Adams, Irish Times

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an excellent one-day conference, Telling the Truth in Northern Ireland, at Trinity College Dublin, organised by Nigel Biggar, professor of theology at Trinity's School of Religions and Theology.

Along with representatives from victims' groups and a sprinkling of academics, significant others taking part were PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, NI Policing Board chairman Sir Desmond Rea and NI Community Relations Council chief executive Duncan Morrow.

We met to discuss whether there should be some kind of "truth process" in Northern Ireland; if so, what form it might take; and, crucially, the many problems such a process would face.

Those of us who have promoted the idea of a truth process should be under no illusions about the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking or, in particular, the damage that could be done if it wasn't handled properly.

I was certainly left with no illusions after the conference.

I was even more aware than before of just how difficult, if not downright impossible, it will be to overcome some of those obstacles.

Obviously, the most immediate problem facing a truth process would be finding someone to head a truth commission that would be both capable of doing the job and acceptable to all sides.

Fulfilling those criteria would be no mean task in itself.

And, considering that we already have a whole assortment of mini-processes all running in tandem, with none of them showing any signs of reaching a destination, it seems obvious that a truth process would need to be strictly time-framed if it wasn't to become yet another neverending, will-sapping exercise in navel-gazing.

We have to consider, too, what incentive there could possibly be for people such as politicians, clergy or business leaders to volunteer information to a truth commission regarding their own role in the conflict.

If anything, they would have a strong vested interest in not co-operating.

Is it desirable (or even feasible), then, that a truth commission should have powers to investigate, seize documents and summon people to account for themselves if there seems to be sufficient evidence that they have a case to answer? And, in those circumstances, what safeguards would there be for high-profile individuals who would forever run the risk of being maliciously named?

To protect against that, should media access be strictly limited with most sittings held in private? What impact would such restrictions have on public confidence in the process and, in any event, would it be realistic to expect there wouldn't be a continuous leaking of information from the proceedings? Unless properly designed and managed, of course, a truth process would always be open to abuse by those intent on using it to rewrite history to their own advantage.

Those seeking to inflate their particular "truth" at the expense of others' versions would try to use a truth process as a platform from which to continue the conflict by other means.

Further hurt would then be heaped on already grieving relatives forced to watch from the sidelines as their bereavement is used to bolster the position of one side or another in a public squabble between opposing factions.

Most who support the idea of a truth process genuinely believe it will help ease the suffering of victims and, in doing that, aid reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.

And, in that respect, they would argue that the lack of a truth process is holding up development of the peace process.

But it is equally conceivable that a truth process might actually damage the peace process and hinder reconciliation by raking over the past and reopening old wounds.

At the very least, differing interpretations of events will inevitably generate a degree of friction.

Others believe it will help bring to account, at least in some form, many of those responsible for violent acts.

Yet others feel society has a right to know fully all that took place and that it is important the full truth is known, if for no other reason than to provide a proper historical record.

For most people, it is a combination of some or all of the above.

But there are those who lend their support for other, quite different reasons, such as seeking to have their own prejudices reinforced and their subsequent apportioning of blame vindicated.

But that is the very last thing a truth process should be about and, indeed, should be jealously protected against.

Unless people on all sides are willing to face up to the pain of objective truth and, further, have a clear and realistic idea of the limits to what can reasonably be achieved, then a truth process should, at least at this juncture, be a non-runner. Unless the circumstances are right, there would be a real risk of it further entrenching divisions or, at best, raising public expectations and then dashing them again.

So the ultimate question must be: are the people of Northern Ireland ready to face the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Reprinted with permission from the author.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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Index: Current Articles

15 September 2005

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Facing the Truth About the North
David Adams

Mowlam and the Status Quo
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh

Exports for the North Mean Exploitation for the South
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Snapshots from Occupied Bil'in
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