Opinion: it is becoming increasingly clear that a failure to address the past is putting Northern Ireland’s future at risk

By Gladys Ganiel, Queen's University Belfast

Earlier this month, a British government document designed to facilitate a public consultation on addressing the past was obtained by the BBC. On the same day, Rev David Latimer, the minister of First Derry Presbyterian, revealed that up to 30 families had left his congregation due to his friendship with the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

Latimer’s revelations laid bare a question the churches have faced throughout the Troubles: how far can you go with public acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, while at the same time sensitively ministering to people who have been injured and bereaved during the Troubles? Latimer’s dilemma reminds us that the churches, with their long years of grappling with questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, have much to contribute to the public consultation.

The consultation document reflects the principles and provisions for addressing the past laid out in the dormant Stormont House Agreement of 2014. Stormont House’s very first principle about the past is "promoting reconciliation". Reconciliation is a key concept in Christian faith and practice but, as the split in Latimer’s congregation makes clear, Christians in Northern Ireland do not agree about reconciliation.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, an interview with Rev David Latimer about his friendship with Martin McGuinness

In my research, I have encountered Christians who have been enthusiastic proponents of reconciliation and others who do not believe that reconciliation is possible or even appropriate. These include Christians who have been victims of the conflict. Some have forgiven perpetrators, some pray for those who murdered their loved ones and some rouse themselves to forgive each and every day, some cannot forgive.

A few admit they skip the line in the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father that says "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" and others would forgive if the perpetrators acknowledged their deeds or repented for them. Some believe that forgiveness and reconciliation go hand and hand, while others think that at least some sort of reconciliation is possible even without forgiveness.

if I had to isolate one insight about reconciliation, it is that reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement

But if I had to isolate one insight about reconciliation from their lived experiences, it is that reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement. Acknowledgement can take different forms; from public expressions like statements, apologies or memorials, to private occasions like a visit from clergy on the anniversary of a bereavement or a behind-the-scenes meeting between a perpetrator and a victim.

My findings about the complex and contradictory ways people approach reconciliation reveal a significant weakness in Stormont House: it is not clear how this agreement defines or conceptualises reconciliation. Given that Stormont House recommends an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, the first order of business for such a group should be initiating a public conversation about reconciliation that acknowledges that people hold different ideas about what reconciliation is and how it can be promoted.

This should be a wide-ranging conversation that includes considering how we give victims room to grieve and lament, how we honour different expressions of forgiveness, how we stop insisting that everyone "forgive and forget" and how we can foster empathy and compassion by acknowledging each other’s pain.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Congressman Bruce Morrison speaks about the review of the Stormont House Agreement

Given the insight that reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement, it is encouraging that Stormont House also includes these words: "the UK and Irish Governments will consider statements of acknowledgement and would expect others to do the same" (emphasis mine). Over the years, many organisations – including some Christian groups and denominations and paramilitary groups – have acknowledged their part in contributing to division and violence. But these acknowledgements have not always found a form of words that brings comfort to the wounded or bereaved. They have also not always been heard, hence widespread claims that the "other side" has never apologised.

Stormont House recommends a further three mechanisms, all of which have the potential to provide people with information relating to deaths of their loved ones, as well as with acknowledgement of their suffering: a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR) and an Oral History Archive (OHA).

There are already concerns that the HIU and ICIR will not be able to compel evidence from all perpetrators equitably. Many nationalists are convinced that the British government will not release the documentation that will allow the full truth to be told. Meanwhile, unionists suspect these institutions will be biased against the state and paramilitary violence will not be investigated with sufficient vigour.

If churches and Christian organisations miss this opportunity, wider society will be denied the wisdom they have gleaned through their vast experience

But the OHA is a venue where, theoretically, anyone and everyone has an equal opportunity to tell their story. Protestant clergy with whom I am acquainted fear that people from their community will still be reluctant to go forward for such a project and will need to be convinced that their stories will be handled in good faith.

In that light, further clarity is needed about how the stories in the Archive would be gathered, accessed and disseminated. Stormont House simply says that "the Archive will bring forward proposals on the circumstances and timing of contributions being made public." Going back to the insight that reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement, public consumption of diverse perspectives on what happened during the Troubles must be a part of Northern Ireland’s future.

It has recently been argued that the churches have missed their opportunity to build peace since the Good Friday Agreement. If churches and Christian organisations miss the opportunity presented by the proposed consultation, wider society will be denied the wisdom they have gleaned through their vast experience of balancing the tensions between providing pastoral care to the bereaved, providing safe spaces for people to lament their losses and enabling people to contemplate the challenges of forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Dr Gladys Ganiel is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ