Originally posted in 2014
Tucked away in the main recruitment webpage for the community and voluntary sector today is an invitation to suitably qualified parties to tender for a feasibility study on the development of a storytelling project. The initiative aims to reflect “the cooperation and interaction between former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and former members of An Garda Siochána in the border region from the establishment of both Police Forces in 1922 to 2001.” Among the anticipated outcomes is that different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past will have been acknowledged. It all sounds very ambitious and must surely be the fruits of some high-minded collective think-in from a much feted Anglo-Irish entity charged with rescuing those irrational wee Northerners from themselves, and each other. Except it’s not. It’s just business as usual from a sector quietly getting on with creative efforts to address the diversity of experiences among victims and survivors.
In the flurry of public commentary on foot of Gerry Adams’s arrest last week, it fast became a chin-stroking exercise over the new Burning Question: All or Nothing? Particular credit was given to Fintan O’Toole for exhibiting a balance in his response generally uncharacteristic of commentators south of the border. I know it is antagonistic to speak in terms of ‘Southern’ understanding, but that is how it has seemed to me for many years now. The gulf between reality and understanding has always felt wider there than in many other places. Relying on a mainstream discourse played out through a predictably narrow media, including the Sunday Independent revisionists, hasn’t helped. Yet, everyone has responsibility to dig deeper. To step back from the temptation of case-shut analysis and reach for a few question marks instead. Adams’s arrest upended one sector’s fondness for all or nothing, and enabled the camera to pan away and broaden perspective. O’Toole’s article succeeded in showing that the arrogance of certainty is receding. That can only be a good thing.
Perhaps when future historians show up, sufficient perspective will have been gained to enable the ordinary communities of the North to finally sharp-elbow their way onto those pages reserved for the peace-brokers. And the conveniently myopic interpretation of the Conflict as a petty religious fall-out between neighbours, by neighbours, might get a laugh similar to that directed at the flat-earth theorists of yesteryear. It would be churlish to dismiss the efforts of some politicians in the process, but peace was essentially a demand from the people. The ordinary people, no longer able to stomach the increasingly brutal and futile tactics of paramilitaries, or the intransigence of successive governments North, South, and Westminster. It took the threat of political expediency and the oceanic roar of ‘no more’ for the ballot seekers to catch up. Peace was essentially a grassroots driven outcome.
Communities remain unstinting in their efforts to acknowledge “different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past”. Relatives For Justice, and The Pat Finucane Centre, among others, labour beneath the political ransom they’re being held under to beat a path towards truth and justice for victims and survivors. Elsewhere, a plethora of grassroots projects provide therapeutic supports and safe meeting places for others to access help to heal and deal with the past. In accounting for the rights and needs of victims and survivors, the one-size of all or nothing does not fit neatly. Victims and survivors occupy a broad spectrum; they are as diverse as their memories. Many desire forgiveness, acceptance, and hold tight to a determination not to re-live the origins of their pain in a courtroom. Yet they don’t wish to undermine the legitimacy or entitlement of others to do otherwise. For some, acknowledgement will suffice. For others, surrendering their game of tug o’ war with the right way forward is out of the question.
Any proposed framework will have to account for that reality. The traditional binary shorthand of all or nothing, green or orange, taig or prod, won’t withstand a traditional Northern kicking. Achieving it is not an impossibility, but it necessitates the centrality of victims and survivors in its design, and their inclusion in corresponding commentary and mainstream narrative(s). Communities are ready. Families of victims are ready. Survivors are ready. All are, for the All or. They’re just waiting for the peace-brokers to catch up. For the leaders to take the lead. Story of their lives, and their dead.