Sunday, July 31, 2005

Truth and Reconciliation

We attended a farewell lunch today for some Irish friends who are returning to Ireland to live in Dublin after working here in Paris for a large computer corporation. They are actually from Northern Ireland and are an unusual couple in that she is a Catholic from Derry while he is a Protestant. In other words, they come from either side of the Northern Irish warring factions. She is from a family that has every reason to dislike the British/Protestants since her own uncle was one of the 17 shot during Bloody Sunday, a day which made him, a young civil rights activist, a martyr to the Republican cause. The day after Bloody Sunday, according to our friend, the Sinn Fein political party office (Sinn Fein is the political face of the IRA) had hundreds of people outside waiting to join up. Both are very intelligent and articulate and well aware of their social responsibilities in the world.

The lunch was hosted by another couple who work for the pharmaceutical industry. Up until recently they have been living in Botswana where they have been working with communities affected by HIV. They are experts on the problems of people suffering the HIV crisis in Africa and elsewhere and currently work as advisors to corporations who need advice on how to help and cope with this problem effecting their own work force, as well as the communities in which they are present. Needless to say, therefore, extremely bright and dedicated people.

We talked about a lot of things, notably comparing experiences of conflict resolution. The couple from Botswana had witnessed the ongoing procedure of truth and reconciliation taking place in neighbouring South Africa and spoke of it as being a necessary process, not only for individuals but for the country as a whole which had to put racial differences behind it before going on into the future. A future which they felt looked increasingly bright. They asked our Irish friends if they thought Ireland would benefit from the same process, particularly considering the landmark agreement of the IRA to give up its weapons last Thursday. Our friends did not think so. The Protestant husband thought: "the Irish would find their own way to find reconciliation", recounting the story of a man who had waited outside his victim's house for a week, professing his guilt and waiting for his apology to be accepted by the family of the dead man.

I understand why they feel that Northern Ireland might not be ready for an official process of truth and reconciliation. It is difficult to feel that a country is ready for such a process when the leaders still speak of 'contempt' for the other side as the loyalist (protestant) leader Ian Paisley did when hearing of the IRA announcement. His contempt was for the fact that the IRA had not declared an apology for their armed struggle. The IRA, on their side, no doubt believe that the armed struggle was justified in that it has changed the political map of Northern Ireland. It is not the same situation as we saw in South Africa. Here, one side was clearly seen to be oppressing the other. In that situation, it was clear who should be saying sorry to who. In Northern Ireland, apologies are due on both sides. No reconciliation will occur until the victims can come together and be united by their suffering. I think it will probably be for the people themselves to initiate this process, since the leaders themselves are too proud to begin it and have too much at stake in the political power struggle to compromise themselves by offering apologies.

What our friends considered most unfortunate was that the whole conflict was essentially working class in origin and kept alive by strong religious beliefs in either community. In reality, what was important to both sides was to obtain a better standard of life. Rates of employment are extremely low in the conflict zone and hence the community is impoverished. Everyone knows that crime is higher in poor communities and this in itself has been a factor in the continuation of the conflict since terrorists on both sides profit from crime and the sale of drugs. Eventually, after thirty years, conflict has become a way of life for some people. They spoke of attempts to create schools that served both communities as failing because these schools were attracting middle class children rather than working class children who were the ones that were really affected by the conflict. It is clear that the new government of Northern Ireland will have to take a very long term view, starting with the target of improving and changing the lives and expectations of the communities most involved in the violence. They would do well to start by sorting out an integrated school system, since it is among the young that the rift will be most easily healed.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Wow. What an amazing group of friend.