‘We need outside assistance’ –  By Clare Bailey MLA

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The legacy of our past – a neat little phrase which belies an enormous and complex problem to which we need to get to the core. It’s so high we can’t get around it, so low we can’t get under it and so wide we can’t get round it. A possible solution might be to go through a gate, if one existed.

It’s wrong to talk about victims and survivors of our past as a homogeneous group. No such group exists due in part to the fact that our conflict was not  simple or straightforward. Politicians sometimes speak about our past in binary terms; good, evil, black, white, innocent and guilty. That doesn’t work for me, things were messy and extremely ugly during our conflict.

One factor that unites victims and survivors is that they have all been failed by our post conflict political system. The impact of that failure on wider society has been catastrophic. It inhibits political progress, as demonstrated by the current political impasse. There is no doubt that dealing with the past is difficult – it encompasses grief and bereavement, which is often complex. Complex grief is linked with traumatic events and can give rise to post traumatic stress disorder. Trauma is not something that can be overcome by politics. It is personal and there is no one size fits all, simple solution.

Most of us will have experienced or will experience grief at some stage in our lives. That grief doesn’t disappear, we just learn to live with it. Complex grief is something entirely different and can cause significant distress and mental and physical impairment.

This distress and impairment have become intergenerational. Alcohol and drug abuse, mental and physical illness, and socio economic problems are often the outworking of the failure to address the legacy of our past. The areas which took the brunt of the conflict remain the most economic and socially disadvantaged in Northern Ireland, even after 25 years of our peace process. The problems have become ingrained and deep seated for our next generation.

The ongoing Stormont talks show that we can’t get around, under or over these legacy issues. When we have some politicians who were players in the conflict, when we have political parties who are founded on an ideology of division or sectarianism, how can we have faith that they can move us forward in any sustainable way?

This current round of talks is the seventh attempt to deal with legacy issues. Good Friday, St Andrews, Eames-Bradley, Hass, Stormont House, Fresh Start and now. Agreement and compromise have been reached before and deals signed off but yet here we are again. How long will we allow this to go on and to what cost?

We need outside assistance and I believe that an international, independent model or system of truth recovery could provide the gate. Post conflict transformation and truth recovery systems were instituted in South Africa, Kosovo and Rwanda. The systems have made a positive contribution to peace building and cohesion. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland peace process is held up as a beacon around the world and yet we continue to allow communities, families and individuals to be poisoned by the grief and pain of the legacy of the past.

The British and Irish governments must acknowledge that their participation in the conflict means that an international dimension to truth recovery is essential. Are they waiting for victims to die before they are offered any form of truth recovery? If so, that approach is exceptionally cruel and contrary to natural justice. And, it doesn’t work, the complex grief doesn’t go away, it simply slithers across from generation to generation. Perhaps now is the time to separate our political process from a legacy process and do all we can to create the peace needed for those still suffering.

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  1. Laurence Rocke on

    If your last sentence means that we should draw a line in the sand and move on, I agree. That is not to say that we should forget about the people who have been seriously affected by the Troubles – and there are many.
    BUT to continue to dwell on the past obsessively, as is the case now for many people and most politicians is to condemn our children to more of the same political disaster that we have experienced for a generation already.
    We have to find a way to accommodate both of these things. Your solution seems entirely reasonable to me. The huge problem is to get an acceptance by the four largest.nationalist and unionist parties. Easier perhaps with SDLP and UUP but very difficult with SF and DUP who cynically use victims and legacy issues for their own electoral purposes.

    • Claire,
      Sensitively and sensibly written and forms of your proposal have been suggested before. I think we’ve reached a point when unionism might actually accept this, as they need it of their books. What better way to do that than pass it off to an international adjudicator and abdicate responsibility.
      Laurence the sdlp and uup have not been and are not likely to be any more willing to deal with this. They haven’t in the past and I’m not criticising them here, or the other parties for that matter because as Claire has said, this is too big and I’m glad she included both governments as participants because it is too often forgotten.
      A very well written piece on the biggest, most contentious issue left to deal with.
      Nobody is going to find an outcome that suits all, it’s simply not possible. I met and worked with victims and discussed the Eames/Bradley proposals with them. Most agreed with some parts but not one agreed with it all. These were not unreasonable people it just demonstrates how complex the issue is.
      Mick Coogan.

  2. Jake MacSiacais on

    To continue burdening the current political process with the trauma, complexity and legacy of a military phase of conflict which ended in stalemate is the height of lunacy, particularly when Unionism hasn’t even begun to contemplate its role or responsibility for anything that occurred and hasn’t been encouraged to do so by the main player. Until we can separate future possibilities from past realities we are hamstrung. Victims will never, in general, be able to move beyond their pain all the more so when they are manipulated for current political gain. The brutal truth is that there is no easy fix, nor any perfect fix, and any fix, however imperfect, that can be found is beyond the scope of the participants and that most clearly includes the British government. Time for a referee. Time for truth. Time for change.

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