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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

Remembering and forgetting the past.

In a world where the attention span of the average person appears to dim by the year, it's easy to forget that conflicts apparently solved continue to fester long after the settlement itself has been agreed. Even taking this into account, the speed with which Northern Ireland has moved from something regarded as intractable and insolvable to a model for the settlement of other on the surface similar conflicts has been remarkable, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness no longer the hard men of the IRA Army Council, but almost cuddly politicians, Ian Paisley no longer a hate-filled bigot opposed to the slightest of compromises but a laughing first minister, since retired with his place in history assured.

All this has ignored that the tensions beneath the surface remain palpable, the threat from dissidents on both sides apparently increasing, with no real proper attempt made at reconciling the communities that still in many places live apart, isolated, cut off. That previous unsolvable conflict, South Africa, now provides the model, its truth and reconciliation commission providing the unpleasant but necessary bringing together of the disconnected, past crimes repented for and forgiven, tears shed and closure apparently brought. Little is said about how despite the attempts at learning from the past, South Africa's main problem remains the crushing poverty which the black population disproportionately suffers from, with the crime and violence which goes hand in hand crippling the cities, but it still undoubtedly remains the first port of call for lessons in how to bring the wounded together.

You can then only have sympathy for the difficulties in drawing up any sort of action plan or agenda for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, with the Consultative Group on the Past's report being published today (PDF). The main criticism has surrounded the proposed £12,000 to be given to the relatives of those who lost loved ones as a result of the sectarian violence, regardless of whether those involved were paramilitaries or not, which is by any measure something of a crude instrument. For the most part however, the recommendations make sense, and while some have suggested that it's still too soon for such raw wounds to be treated, the argument that they will heal naturally over time is not wholly convincing. While digging deeper into what may have scabbed over will undoubtedly, and naturally, cause further initial pain, the eventual conclusion of shared reconciliation, justice and forgiveness should stop it from later coming to the surface all over again.

The "proposed ex-gratia recognition payment" is therefore especially troublesome because it directly affects the possibility of this process taking place. Its heart, as you might expect, is in the right place: by not distinguishing between those who lost their lives, it tries to stop grievance from arising, further enflaming the situation. By the same token, the fact that it doesn't distinguish means that those who were pure victims of the bombings, kidnappings and assassinations are regarded as being worth the same as potentially the killers themselves; likewise, you simply cannot put a figure of money on a life. £12,000 seems instead to be an insult rather than recognition. You're left with two apparent options, as the others seem even worse: either no payments or payments which don't distinguish at all.

This shouldn't however distract from the other, far more sound recommendations. The legacy commission, to be led by an international figure, seems certain to be headed by Desmond Tutu, the one person who might well be able to stop Northern Ireland from falling into the same mistakes which South Africa's attempt masked over. One thing which all can surely agree on is that there be no more inquiries, like the disaster which has been the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, still yet to report. Few also could disagree from one of the eventual end aims:

The Group therefore recommends that the Commission should, at the end of its work, challenge the people of Northern Ireland, including political parties and whatever remnant or manifestation of paramilitary groups remain, to sign a declaration to the effect that they will never again kill or injure others on political grounds.

One can only hope that such a declaration is eventually signed, and that the Northern Ireland model could one day be used in that other long festering sore, Israel/Palestine.

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