Surprisingly good weather for a bank holiday weekend, and therefore time to chat and think about various things on a good walk. I find that the whole Gerry Adams, IRA, Northern Ireland situation is still very much at the forefront of my mind. Today’s news is full of talk of retribution and revenge from both sides of the divide. I appreciate that as an Englishwoman who has never visited the north, let alone lived there, I am not entitled to much of an opinion about it. Nevertheless there seem to be some basic principles of conflict management that should be applicable.
Looking at the big situations in the news at the moment – away from home there is the daily build up of tension in Ukraine, the ongoing appalling civil war in Syria, and of course the long running low grade non-war in the middle east. All manner of international politicians, UN negotiators,diplomats, religious leaders and others get involved in high profile disputes, with varying (usually short lived) degrees of success. I can’t help feeling that so many international conflicts, with all the trauma, morbidity and mortality that ensue, are at heart very similar to two children squabbling.
I want something that you’ve got – either because I think that it was mine in the first place, or because I think that although it is yours I have some superior claim to it. I ask you for it and you won’t hand it over. I threaten you, or bully you, or perhaps more subtly bribe you. Maybe you accept the bribe, but of course I then come back for more. In the end you fight me for it. For a while I remain subdued, cowed into submission, but eventually I will fight back. I don’t just want what is mine back – I want more, in recompense for what was done to me.
And so it goes on, round and round, with resentment and division building up, so that eventually one can have rifts in families or amongst erstwhile friends where nobody actually remembers the original grievance.As in Northern Ireland. these bitter divisions in families can carry on for generations.
Enter a conciliator, who asks that both parties abandon their fixed positions and draw up rules for new ways of working. A great idea in theory,but with the family situation what happens is that A says ‘OK, but I just need B to apologise/ pay me what I’m owed/ give me back x’ and then I’ll sign up. B of course says exactly the same, and the cycle of fighting can be triggered again.
It may be incredibly naive of me, but surely both sides have to agree to leave the past behind in any conflict,in particular when there are no victors. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Forgiving also does not mean you need to like, let alone love, your adversary.Giles Fraser wrote a good article on forgiveness in a recent edition of the Guardian. Professor Ed Cairns leads the campaign for forgiveness research, and his preliminary research suggests that across all groups in Northern Ireland a theoretical desire to forgive is overridden by a stronger desire to hold onto the past. Behavioural psychologists have established that revenge not only fails to satisfy the avenger in the long term, but invariably creates further feelings of injustice in the person/ people who are the subjects of the revenge, and thus perpetuates a cycle of violence
Of course, I haven’t witnessed my mother, father, brother, child being tortured or murdered, or worse, just disappeared. However, I have seen my mother die prematurely because of sloppy administration in the health service, I have seen numerous injustices visited on many of my patients in their daily lives just because they are poor, poorly educated, and/or vulnerable. I am familiar with the desire for revenge over small things, and in principle this is no different from the desire for revenge over large things.
Everybody has heard of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, which has had variable success in its mission. However, Amnesty International makes clear the importance of Truth Commissions, which have been established in over 30 countries around the world.
Truth is a vital response to the crimes:
- For the direct victims to know the whole truth about the crimes they suffered and the reasons behind it, as well as have their suffering publicly acknowledged. Moreover, truth is necessary to correct any false accusations made against them in the course of the crime.
- For family members, particularly of those killed or disappeared, to find out what happened to their loved-one and to establish their whereabouts.
- For the affected society to know the circumstances surrounding and reasons that led to violations being committed to ensure that they will not be committed again, and to have their shared experiences acknowledged and preserved.
Without truth there can be no reconciliation. Without a prior agreement about how truth will be handled it seems to me that there can be no truth. Nobody will tell the truth if they cannot trust that revenge will not be taken against them. This requires trust.
This of course is the problem, whether the crime is very small or very large; whether it is a sibling fight or genocide. In situations of abuse and conflict trust melts away faster than snowflakes on a fire. It seems that no-one knows how to restore it.